Evolving trends in absence and disability management

With the start of a new year, organizations have new goals and budgets to meet.

Many organizations take the new year as an opportunity to take a critical look at current practices and processes, including the way these align with their business goals. One area gaining attention over the years, due to increasing costs, is disability and absence management.

These can be frustrating topics that organizations feel they can’t positively impact. Trends in this space have been slow to develop in response to the evolving landscape. That being said, here are three trends in absence and disability management.

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1. Mental health

For several years, human resources leaders have been focusing on improving the mental health of their workforces. Many organizations are implementing and adopting strategies to both identify and support employees struggling with mental health in the workplace, hopefully keeping them well and at work in the process.

Unfortunately, absences and disability claims due to mental health have continued to rise at the same time, leading to increases in both the complexity and duration of workplace absences.

Over the past few years, insurers have come to the table with a number of pilot programs and strategies to positively affect those on claims for mental health. These include pharmacogenetics, which target better outcomes sooner for pharmaceuticals in the treatment of mental-health conditions; expedited access to psychiatric screening and treatment; and partnerships with employee assistance programs, which provide supports, such as web-based cognitive behavioural therapy for employees managing mental-health challenges.

As some of these pilots turn into broader offerings, and as approaches to mental-health treatment and supportive care mature, there’s opportunity for plan sponsors to leverage these offerings for prevention, treatment access and recovery-focused support.

While EAP providers have traditionally dominated this space, new providers are emerging due to challenges around accessing community-based care and psychological e-services become more popular.

2. Strengthening processes

As a means to cost reduction and increased productivity, employers are looking for ways to streamline processes in the absence and disability space while also shortening durations of absence and improving outcomes for their employees. Employers are trying to meet these goals by reviewing their processes, making better use of technology or a combination of both.

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In many organizations, there are different people managing incidental absence reporting, occupational claims and non-occupational disability claims. As a result, the processes built around tracking and managing these absences can be vastly different. By bringing together these streams with common management processes, systems or common oversight, organizations can gain greater efficiencies, free up internal resources and realize cost savings.

At the same time, employers are increasing their efforts in training managers to identify and respond appropriately to someone who is struggling with incidental absences, effectively accommodate an employee or to successfully return someone to work, especially where there is a component of a mental health or performance issue. This training focus, as well as cascading it to front-line leaders, certainly has a positive effect on plan costs, but also on employee engagement and productivity.

Employers are reviewing their vendor partners in this arena to ensure they’re getting what they need and that that partner’s approach and philosophy aligns with their own.

3. Enhanced reporting

Since many organizations have different reporting lines and data sets when it comes to tracking and reporting incidental absences, occupational claims and non-occupational disability claims, this siloed approach can result in a lost opportunity for insightful interpretation and a more fulsome view of trends and cost drivers in the organization, as well as opportunities for improvement. Historically, reporting in this space has been simply a summary of activity.

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There’s absolutely an increased interest in a more integrated approach to reporting, pulling data together from the variety of sources and benchmarking incidence and durations data to other organizations in the same sector. This elevated and integrated approach to reporting enhances an organization’s ability to see the big picture and have meaningful conversations about next steps.

While these trends have been slowly emerging, there seems to be increasing interest and focus in this space. Adoption of these changes and enhancements will ultimately result in better employee experiences and better decision-making by organizations.