Aldo Cundari speaks at the 2012 Benefits & Pension Summit

Absence management
Dr. Ray Baker’s credentials would impress any headhunter, but the achievements he’s most proud of aren’t on his resumé. “I’m an alcoholic who’s been sober for 26 years,” he said. “And two weeks ago, I ran the Boston Marathon”—at age 65.

In Baker’s view, “addiction is the great imposter behind nearly half of complex, prolonged disability claims. If you have a fat file, think addiction.” What’s the biggest red flag for an addiction problem in an employee? “A change in attendance patterns. If there’s one program I would like to see in every workplace, it’s an attendance management program.”

Watch: Dr. Ray Baker talks about addiction and personal responsibility

While addictions are undoubtedly difficult to break, “it’s an area of medicine where treatment is often successful,” said Baker, who now works as a consultant specializing in occupational addiction medicine. “I’m interested in broadening the model to other areas.”

Along with early detection and intervention, a successful treatment program must include contingency management, he explained. “It’s the real secret to success: how to get people not only to initiate change but [also to] happily maintain it.”

Building on Baker’s ideas, workplace health specialist Karen Seward described absence management as “an integrated strategy rooted in strong assessment and supportive management.” In her experience, most employers report an average absence duration of 42 to 50 days. “With the right resources to help employees navigate the system, there’s no reason you can’t bring the number down to 28 or 30,” she said.

Effective absence management programs “must include both prevention and recovery strategies,” Seward maintained. To make this happen, employers need to “integrate their various programs so the vendors can work together to give the employee a seamless treatment experience.”

Watch: Karen Seward talks about benefits trends and costs

Even when people cite a physical reason, a mental health issue may well be driving the claim, she said, adding that absence management strategies play an especially critical role in such cases. “Most employees are reluctant to tell colleagues they were away because of depression. A targeted return-to-work strategy can help such employees feel more comfortable.”

Mental health in the workplace
“More and more employers recognize the benefits of investing in the mental health of their workforce,” said Claude di Stasio, vice-president of Quebec affairs with the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA).

The Mental Health Commission of Canada recently stated that “psychological requirements of employees need to be addressed in the workplace,” she added. The commission is currently developing a voluntary national standard for psychological health in the workplace. In the meantime, the CLHIA has crafted the following principles.

  1. Work to improve knowledge of the impact of workplace mental illness.
  2. Encourage best practices and programs for a mentally healthy workplace.
  3. Collaborate with stakeholders to reduce mental health disability in the workplace.
  4. Use fair and effective disability management practices.
  5. Promote products and services that address mental health needs.

Di Stasio emphasized that most employers can fold these principles into their existing programs without much extra work or financial investment. “Whatever else you do, be sure to equip managers to recognize stress and distress in employees and offer assistance.”

Watch: Claude Di Stasio discusses  employers’ involvement in mental health

If employees intend to take time off work for mental health reasons, it’s appropriate for the employer to “remind them about EAP and other programs, and encourage them to get help as early as possible,” said Karen Soulliere, business development manager with Crawford & Company (Canada) Inc. As an employer, “you’re also allowed to request additional information [from the employee’s health provider] that would help clarify what accommodations are needed.”

Karen Soulliere speaks at the 2012 Benefits & Pension Summit

Soulliere suggested that employees returning to work after a mental health-related absence be asked, “What do you need to succeed?” Productive accommodations include modified work hours, breaks, job duties and/or workspace; sharing or swapping tasks with co-workers; and/or changing location and job coaching, she added. “You may also need to give the employee extra time to learn tasks and modify the way instructions and feedback are given.”

Soulliere ended on a provocative thought: “How employees are treated after a significant incident affects attraction and retention of quality employees, because they know the same thing could happen to them.”

Gabrielle Bauer is a freelance writer in Toronto.

Download a PDF of this article and other coverage from the 2012 Benefits & Pension Summit.

Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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