When Algonquin College decided to streamline its absence management process in 2019, it was important to partner with a provider that would go beyond merely adjudicating files and deliver a touchpoint for employees.

The school quickly found that partner in Morneau Shepell Ltd., which was already providing ad-hoc absence management services to Algonquin, says Jessica Myers, acting manager of wellness and abilities in the human resources department at the Ontario-based college. “Speaking with other providers, they didn’t provide that intake call or touchpoint, they just reviewed the information that was received. I felt we needed a more personal and empathetic approach.”

Read: Taking the long view on effectively dealing with LTD claims

And based on Morneau Shepell’s data, the new program seems to be working. Last year, the college saw a 32 per cent decrease in mental-health related absences in comparison to its 2019 numbers, a statistic which was also 30 per cent below 2020 industry incidence norms. The college also saw a five per cent decrease in average days lost per case, with case durations 15 per cent shorter than industry comparators in 2020, and experienced a significant increase in return-to-work outcomes, outperforming the industry average by 22 per cent as a result of this new approach to absence management.

Prioritizing staff and students

When developing the program, Algonquin’s guiding principle was to ensure that its approximately 4,600 employees — who either belong to one of two unions or are non-unionized — were treated equally, regardless of their status and entitlement to sick leave benefits, says Tara Aquilanti, a wellness and abilities specialist at the college.

“I think absence management is bigger than whether you’re entitled to sick leave or not. It’s about making employees understand that we care about them and want to help them make an early and safe return to work. Are some people entitled to absence benefits? Yes, but I still care that someone is under appropriate treatment and I want to know their restrictions and limitations so I can guide them back to work.”

In addition, while handling faculty absences, Myers says the college — which currently has more than 45,000 students — needs to consider the impact on the classroom while meeting operational needs when developing return-to-work programs.

Read: How will the coronavirus impact long-term disability claims?

“It’s similar to a customer experience, but the confinement of the delivery method of teaching is different from when we have a support member who works in the cafeteria. It’s about making sure we communicate that to Morneau Shepell when we’re looking at a progressive return to work. It’s not just ‘three hours on Tuesday and five hours on Wednesday’ — it has to be a really sound plan.”

Among Canadian employers, robust absence management programs are few and far between, says Melanie Jeannotte, chief executive officer of the benefits and human resources consulting division in Canada at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “There might be a sick leave policy to address attendance management, but there’s a distinct lack of process and documents in place. As a consequence, there’s a vacuum of data and it makes absence difficult to track.”

However, she says there are several advantages to having such a program in place. “Most employers don’t have a good handle on the cost and impact of absence to the bottom line, but once you start tracking that, you can get at the specific issues and determine the cost implications for your organization. [Absence management] also looks like good compliance management in a unionized environment where, if you’re not adhering to sound absence management practices and workplace accommodations, you can run into [legal] issues.”

Staying connected

Algonquin and Morneau Shepell communicate via the provider’s software suite, says Nathan Chartrand, director of client experience in health and productivity solutions at Morneau Shepell. These include AbilitiConnect, a plan-sponsor portal offering up-to-the-minute information on all absences with access to real-time aggregate reporting and trending, as well as AbilitiManage, case management software for sick leave, disability and workplace incident, injury and illness.

Read: Next steps for data analytics in disability and benefits plans

Through the program, he says, Morneau Shepell takes a more individualized approach to absence management rather than applying a rigid medical model and that for the majority of cases, the provider often determines its strategy based on the initial phone call.

“You have to assume good faith and that the individual calling in is being truthful in what they’re reporting. For things like minor strains and sprains, there’s no point in asking them to get medical information that oftentimes costs money. It can become a negative experience for an individual who’s high-performing and has been a valued employee for years — why force them to go through that kind of exercise?”

In addition to assessing for short-term disability, Chartrand says Morneau Shepell also conducts intermittent absence reviews of staff that call in sick on a regular basis — to determine whether there’s an underlying medical cause for the absence — as well as accommodation reviews for employees requiring a modification of duty or hours due to health. “A lot of folks will report they’re capable of doing more than they can or should.”

Following an employee’s leave of absence, Algonquin and Morneau Shepell continue to co-ordinate on the return-to-work process. In the event of a work-related barrier preventing an employee’s return, Aquilanti says the college will engage one of Morneau Shepell’s facilitators to work through the matter with the employee and their manager. The college can also access a program called InfluenceCare to assist employees requiring a referral to a medical specialist.

By the numbers

32% The decrease in mental health cases at Algonquin College in 2020, in comparison to 2019, which the college credits to a proactive case management team

22% The percentage of regular return-to-work outcomes at Algonquin College in 2020 above the industry standard

5% The decrease in average days lost per case at Algonquin College in 2020

Sources: Algonquin College and Morneau Shepell

Getting the word out

For an employer, implementing a major program can bring concerns and criticism from staff. To communicate its new absence-management program to employees, Myers says Algonquin held a series of information and training sessions, including department-specific meetings and team-building exercises with the college’s union partners led by Morneau Shepell.

Read: Successful return-to-work processes more essential during coronavirus

“We’ve continued to provide education and training to individuals within the college and we’ve most recently added the program to our new-hire orientation. That’s a new step we just implemented so we can touch on short-term disability, compensation and [Workplace Safety & Insurance Board training] as they relate to the program and we give a detailed overview in that session.”

Preparing for the future

As the program continues to assist Algonquin employees, it also yields plenty of data for the college and Morneau Shepell to continually fine-tune the process.

In addition to discussion of cases at the anecdotal level, Chartrand says there’s also a report sent to the college on a quarterly basis that provides a deeper look at all aspects of the program, from overall incident rates and durations to diagnostic indicators and outcomes. “We work together to identify the areas that are significant in the data to develop strategies to reduce incidents, duration and ultimately prevent absences from happening in the first place.”

Read: How to manage the employee mental-health tsunami

And it’s this data that has allowed Algonquin to undertake relevant wellness initiatives, Myers says, such as focusing on mental health amid the coronavirus pandemic. “As much as we’re structured and have a very detailed and concrete process, it’s also fluid in the sense that we recognize that we can make tweaks along the way, in regards to the services we may need to look at or if we need to review the program. It’s about genuinely looking at what’s best for everyone in regards to the application.”

Blake Wolfe is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.