Prolonged disability leaves are costly–they decrease workplace productivity, increase costs to replace absent employees and affect an organization’s marketplace competitiveness. Well-managed disability programs can reduce the number of disability claims and the duration of employee absences.

Focus on measurable results
Implementing a co-ordinated, clearly defined and well-communicated disability management program can result in substantial savings. Employers should have a documented return-to-work program and should measure its efficacy.

Organizations should start by tracking absenteeism data and by setting targets for claims incidence rates, duration and costs–all of which should be reviewed periodically.

In the United States, Shell evaluated its disability management program, which emphasizes absence tracking, early return to work and employee accommodation. Over four years, these practices demonstrated a return on investment of US$2.40 per dollar invested and represented more than US$4.1 million in savings.

Collecting and analyzing data on absenteeism and disability is the only means of evaluating the performance of the program. Relevant data must be collected and interpreted and regularly communicated to all involved stakeholders. Hard data play an important role in influencing boardroom decision-making. It may be a truism, but one can only manage what one measures.

Take a comprehensive approach
Integrated disability management programs address sick leave and short- and long-term absences due to disability. The program must have management support and be clearly defined and communicated to the vendor or insurer, line managers, and union and non-union employees, so that all stakeholders have a common understanding of policies, processes, roles and responsibilities.

By integrating disability management with health and safety, employee assistance, and wellness and health promotion programs, employers can better identify at-risk employees before the onset of a disability.

Employers should also offer training to supervisors and managers to help them identify the early signs of mental health problems and understand the disability management process.

Program integration enables employers to help employees improve their health and promote their early and safe return to work.

Mental health issues
Health Canada estimates that almost one-third of all disability claims are related to mental health. According to the World Health Organization, depression will be the second leading cause of disability by 2020.

As mental health claims and disability rates increase, employers must recognize the benefits of investing in prevention. Providing employees with programs to support their health and training managers to identify and deal with distressed employees are excellent strategies to keep employees at work and enable them to return to work with a positive and long-term outlook.

Reducing the duration of disability
Employers that thoroughly monitor their employees’ disability claims can identify situations and intervene early. Early intervention can reduce the length of short-term disability absences and can prevent long-term absences.

A study conducted by Sun Life Financial and the Integrated Benefits Institute shows that employers that quickly communicate with and accommodate disabled employees can bring them back to work 20% faster than those without these early interventions. And, getting employees back to work sooner makes a difference. After six months of absence, the probability of return to work decreases by 50% and drops below 10% after 24 months of absence.

Front-line managers should contact employees on disability to maintain the workplace relationship and provide support. Even casual contact with employees during their absence can reduce the duration of disability by 30%. Proactive monitoring of disability claims and regular contact with the disabled employee ensures that he or she receives the best possible treatment at the earliest date.

Return-to-work plans and accommodation
Absence from work also has serious social and financial consequences for the individual. Being away can make employees feel insecure and vulnerable. It can lead to isolation, a diminished sense of dignity and reduced motivation. Return-to-work planning should start while employees are on leave, and their progress should be carefully monitored upon their return to ensure that they are adequately supported.

Accommodating disability is the law and it is good policy. Most employees benefit from accommodations such as progressive return to work, modified duties or temporary assignments that allow them to return to work before they have fully recovered. Organizations often find that early return to work has a therapeutic effect on employees by contributing to their recovery while reducing the cost and duration of absences.

Case by case
There is no magic formula for disability management. Each case is influenced by the interaction of social, personal and organizational factors, as well as by the healthcare, legislative and insurance systems. All of these factors must be considered and the stakeholders involved must act collaboratively, with the goal of returning the disabled employee to work in a safe and timely manner.

Diane Champagne is a principal in Mercer’s health and benefits business and leads the health and productivity team in Canada.

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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