When illness or disability strikes an employee, it can disrupt the whole team. It’s important for every employer to put an integrated structure and sound disability policy in place, so there’s no ambiguity around the process and the claimant can receive care promptly and integrate back into the workforce quickly.

When it comes to handling disability, here are four steps all employers should consider:

1. Put a policy in place:

Regardless of size, a company needs a clear policy around dealing with disability claims.

Jim Massie, president and chief executive officer of Carelogix Health Solutions Inc., won’t even deal with companies that don’t have a clear policy. “No policy . . . we’re not interested,” he says.

A policy is primarily a binding document that clearly spells out the level of benefit, as well as the rules and time frames, says Massie. “For example, when employees are off for more than five consecutive days, they are obligated to seek medical attention and have their physician complete an attending physician’s statement.”

Read: Arbitrator highlights role of disability management process in ruling in worker’s favour

The policy also needs to mandate that the employee both seek and abide by appropriate treatment, adds Massie. “It is about making sure they visit the doctor in a timely fashion. If they have medications or there is recommendation for physiotherapy, they are obligated to comply. If they don’t, they can lose their benefit.”

So in a way, he notes, the policy allows the employer to monitor the behaviour of someone who’s away due to sickness. “It’s like bringing up a kid. You don’t want them to fail. But sometimes you have to be a little stern and enforce the treatment plan.”

2. Keep the employee engaged:

When employees go on disability, it’s critical to engage them immediately, says Danny Palacios, vice-president of client services at Organizational Solutions Inc. in Montreal. In other words, reach out to them, tell them they are valuable to the organization and make sure they have all the documentation required.

“We need to understand, when employees go on disability they’re already in duress. Filling out forms and providing paperwork just adds to that stress. It greatly relieves the pressure if someone can help them navigate the process,” says Palacios.

“Once that’s taken care of, you want to get whoever is managing the medical aspect — third-party provider or insurer — to come in as quickly as possible, so it can be adjudicated,” he adds.

Read: The case for medium-term disability management

The next step, he says, is to shift the focus to ability from disability. “We are not there to question what the person cannot do. We are there to identify what they can do and determine what we can do to bring them back to work.”

Massie says he encourages employers to have someone reach out to claimants, maybe once a week, just to check on them and keep them apprised of what’s happening at work. He gives an example: “Listen, hope you’re doing well. We all miss you here. And before I forget, Mary had a baby — an eight-pound boy. She’s really excited.” Doing so helps claimants feel they’re still a part of the social fabric at work. “You don’t let them feel excluded and allow the fear of returning to work build up,” adds Massie.

3. Facilitate a transitional return to work:

Once employees are ready to return to work after a lengthy absence, it’s important to gradually ease them back, rather than thrust them in full throttle.

Massie says a transitional return to work is very important because it gets people back into the workplace sooner. “Research shows when an absence extends beyond four to five weeks, the claimant’s perception of work becomes more anxiety-laden. The urgency to return is dampened.”

His team carefully reviews each case and makes recommendations to the employer about how they can better accommodate an employee back from disability, such as starting with three days a week, half days or something less involved.

Read: Mental-health first aid training targets rising disability concerns in electricity sector

Such recommendations can be quite clear-cut in the case of physical ailment or injury but they can pose a greater challenge when it comes to mental-health issues. “I always caution clients mental-health claims are more of an art than a science,” notes Massie. “We can’t be as close [in recommendations for return] as we are with a broken leg or ulcer surgery.”

A transition back to work, in such cases, needs to be even more incremental, says Massie. “In cases of depression, anxiety or grief, we make sure before we go ahead and steer the claimant back, their physician or an appropriate specialist is consulted.”

And if the stress relates to a workplace issue, Massie encourages the employer to address it before or upon the claimant’s return. He also makes sure the attending physician is aware of and can address the issue.

4. Adopt an integrated team approach:

For disability claims to proceed swiftly and successfully, the claimant, physician and employer all need to be on the same page, says Palacios.

Disability case management can help. According to Palacios, a case manager can gather a clear understanding of the claimant’s tasks and cognitive requirements at work from the employer. The case manager can then ask the physician to keep those issues in mind while evaluating the claimant from a medical perspective. The case manager can also make sure the employee feels engaged and adheres to the treatment plan. And in conjunction with the employer, the case manager can come up with a modified work plan and seek agreement from all stakeholders.

Read: Collaborative approach to disability management urged

When it comes to disability management, every stakeholder has an agenda. The employer wants to control costs. The physician wants to ensure their patient has fully recovered. And in most cases, the employee wants to return to work. And that, says Palacios, needs to be the premise of disability management: that getting people back into the routine of work is healthy and good for everyone.

This article originally appeared on Benefits Canada‘s companion site, SmallBizAdvisor.ca

Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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