Gearing disability management to the realities of working life

Employees are staying at home to heal in record numbers, whether it’s from physical maladies as a result of illness or accident or other conditions caused by family or work-related pressures. According to Statistics Canada, full-time staff took an average of 8.5 non-vacation days off in 2001.This was up from eight days in 2000, and an increase from 7.5 days in 1997.

Employers have responded to these worsening statistics with a variety of disability management models focusing on everything from absenteeism reporting and aggressive claims management to medical and vocational intervention. But as costs continue to climb and the burden of absent workers takes its toll on productivity, morale and customer service, employers are looking for better solutions.

The sooner a person can return to a normal routine, including work, the more likely she is to have a successful recovery. In addition to a well-communicated policy on absence reporting, early intervention is key. But an early intervention program that focuses too narrowly on the medical impairment on which the disability claim is based may mean the real barriers to a return to work are not being addressed.

Workplace conflicts, difficulties in balancing home and work, aging parents, financial problems — these are all examples of non-medical or stress-related issues that may be the cause of an absence or contributing to a slower return. Getting to the heart of these issues is tough. It requires an approach geared to the particular nature and complexities of an individual case, which can be difficult if the program uses a standard set of processes or protocols for evaluating disability absences.

A more flexible case-by-case approach to disability management — one that employs case managers to ensure every absence is treated with the same personal care — can be a more effective way to get at the root causes. Involving a case manager in the recovery process every step of the way ensures employees’ needs are met with consistency.

Engaging the employee, her manager and the physician in discussions early helps the case manager get a thorough understanding of all the issues — medical, personal and work. This helps identify situations where a physician may be treating a physical symptom of what may in fact be a non-medical issue. An employee may be seeking treatment for anxiety and depression when the real problem is job-related stress. Getting to the core of the problem can eliminate the need for prolonged medical treatment, shorten the absence and prevent absences from re-occurring.

A new concept also gaining ground is the use of employee-manager meetings led by a professional facilitator. These meetings help to identify and resolve work-related, non-medical absences. The employee and her manager are invited to attend the meeting along with a human resource or union representative. The meetings allow and promote open communication between the employee and the manager.

Facilitators are trained to create a supportive, neutral environment for discussion and problem solving. Medical issues are not discussed for confidentiality reasons. Instead, issues of concern or barriers to a return to work are talked about and both managers and employees share responsibility for developing a plan based on the employee’s abilities — not disabilities. Solutions may be as simple as increasing the frequency of breaks or adjusting work volumes. Facilitated meetings may help to detect management issues for which training or further action is required.

So how does an employer know which type of disability management program will work? It is important to understand the organizational culture, issues and perceptions that shape the company. The HR team must evaluate its absenteeism situation and determine goals. It is critical to have senior management buy-in. New initiatives must be supported through ongoing communication and education at every level of the organization.

Annette Gibbs is the vice-president of national disability services with Maritime Life. She can be reached at [email protected]

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