Right now, there are employees at workplaces across Canada who may be at risk of absence and disability. They could be coping with physical or mental health issues, personal concerns or unresolved issues with a work colleague or supervisor. Mental health problems alone are estimated to cost employers about $20 billion a year, according to Statistics Canada. Add to this the fact that the average employee reported the equivalent of 9.3 days in work time lost for personal reasons in 2011, and the picture of lost productivity becomes a bitter pill to swallow.

Fortunately, with the right planning and attention, employers can support employees who are dealing with issues that may be at the root of casual absences and address these issues before they lead to a long-term disability claim. By monitoring and assessing the workplace and having strategies in place that focus on prevention and early identification of those at risk, employers can support their employees with the right services at every stage.

Managing these stages requires different strategies, and it begins with fostering a safe and healthy workplace and culture to help minimize occurrences of the later stages.

Assess your organization
As an employer, you first need to look at your organization and assess the following.

Baseline- Do you have measures in place to track absenteeism, disabilities or health risks? The 2012 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey showed that only 38% of employers formally track absenteeism. It is difficult to address a problem if you don’t know the extent of the problem, so getting a good read on the current state of your organization is important. Your benefits provider may be a source of information for statistics on your plan’s disability claims and drug plan experience (e.g., the number of employees using Lipitor for lowering cholesterol).

Current policies and practices – Do you have an absence policy? Is there a disability plan for short- and long-term disabilities? How do you currently manage absence and disability? What is working well? What are the challenges, and where are the gaps?

Health or organization assessment – You might decide that simply assessing your current policies and practices reveals opportunities for improvement on which you can proceed. You may consider digging deeper and conducting a more formal assessment of your organization practices, or of the health risks in your workforce. If you have a benefits provider, it may be a source of information or support, or an employee assistance program (EAP) provider may provide such services. A more formal assessment can help shed light on what, if any, problem areas exist so that you can focus your effort where it can have the most value.

Create a plan and strategy
Once you’ve assessed your situation, you need to form strategies and plan, but you won’t likely be able to address everything at once. This is the start of an ongoing assessment, so it’s important to reflect on the purpose of your plan and strategies first. Assess whether you need to do the following:

  • develop policies and practices that address current gaps related to managing absence and disability; or
  • develop a workplace wellness strategy (i.e., what are the areas of focus that can best help your staff, and who will be responsible for managing the wellness programs?).

Develop improved practices
Early identification of issues and appropriate early intervention can help avoid short- and long-term disabilities. On the other hand, sometimes simply treating an absence problem as a performance issue can do more harm than good, and can even lead to a disability. A manager must be able to look beyond the absenteeism and consider the reason for the absences, and do this in a way that respects the employee’s privacy. In this respect, management training is essential to help managers guide the discussion (see “Employer Resources,” page 23).

As well, recommending the services of a third party, such as an EAP, can help accommodate privacy issues and provide professional advice and support for the employee and family members. Some absence-tracking services offer a built-in connection to support resources for employees calling in an absence, helping to identify the reason for it and exploring solutions to issues such as work/life balance, mental health concerns or medical illness.

Communication is important, so you need to let employees know that the resources and services available can make a difference. In addition, providing information on medical conditions, prescription drugs, treatment options and health news can enable employees to help themselves. A number of resources are available through benefits provider and EAP websites and through brochures produced by many non-profit organizations.

Your organization should also have strategies in place that can accommodate and support an employee who has reached a state of disability that will prevent him or her from working for an extended period of time. These strategies should focus on the return-to-work process by helping ease the transition and minimize the chances of a reoccurrence. Focusing on employees’ abilities, rather than their limitations, can help ensure that all opportunities for wellness are explored and increase the chances of a successful return to work for employees on disability.

Measure success
How you manage absences can say a lot about your organization and send a clear message to employees about their value. By applying various best practice strategies and understanding what is going on in your workplace, you can make a difference and successfully manage your workforce. Consider some of these potential results:

  • a decrease in employee absence and disability incidence rates;
  • the ability to retain and engage valued employees and improved employee morale;
  • improved levels of overall organizational health and wellness;
  • improved service to customers; and
  • reduced costs, increased productivity and a healthier bottom line.

There’s a growing awareness of the connection between health and productivity. By actively contributing to a psychologically safe and healthy workplace through assessment, strategies, prevention and early identification of issues, you can provide your organization with a competitive edge while supporting the health of your employees.

Mike Schwartz is senior vice-president, group benefits, with Great-West Life. mike.schwartz@gwl.ca

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Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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