While disability management poses many challenges to plan sponsors, rehabilitation consultants can address many of these hurdles, said Francis Marois, manager of the rehabilitation team at iA Financial Group, during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2024 Vancouver Benefits Summit in May.  

Plan sponsors often don’t communicate with an employee on leave to ensure they don’t feel pressured to return, but this practice can end up making workers feel isolated from the workplace. An employee’s physician can’t communicate with their employer for understandable privacy reasons, but as a result may suggest a return-to-work plan that isn’t realistic to the workplace. While mental-health support is often a key part of helping employees get back to work — even for those who are on leave for a physical health issue — it may be too costly for them to maintain long term, which slows down their progress. It’s also often difficult for plan members to find the appropriate health-care practitioners.

Read: How are pandemic reverberations affecting disability management programs, workplace accommodations?

The annual costs associated with long-term disabilities in North America are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental-health claims represented 70 per cent of the total cost of all disability claims in 2016.

The disability management process often doesn’t factor in biopsychosocial factors that may impact someone on leave — such as their family situation, whether they’re dealing with conflicts at work and if they can afford their next treatment — nor does it consider that a plan member’s perception of their illness can play a significant role in how their claim plays out, said Marois.

Rehabilitation consultants work within insurance companies and meet with employees on leave to get a holistic picture of their illness, broader life context, and the type of accommodation they would need to return to work. 

Consultants can also intervene in certain situations, such as connecting a patient with more appropriate services to optimize their treatment plan or stepping in to provide support when someone develops a comorbidity while on leave (such as someone on leave for a physical injury who begins experiencing depression). In those situations, the consultant puts together a tailored rehabilitation program to connect the employee with the appropriate health practitioners. The program can evolve with employees’ changing circumstances, he said.

Read: Why the OTIP brought on a pharmacist as a consultant for its disability claims team

When an employee’s attempted return to work fails, rehabilitation consultants step in to speak with both the employee and employer to get the full picture and address the barriers to a successful return.

Consultants also provide help and support to managers and facilitate meetings between employees and employers to prepare for a gradual return to work. “When you’re off work for six, seven, eight months, returning to work is stressful, so just having this meeting with your employer before returning to work is really helpful for people, just to reassure them and make sure they [feel] welcomed at the workplace.”

The best thing that plan sponsors can do for employees on leave is to keep the lines of communication open and validate how the employee wants to be communicated with, he said, stressing the importance of supporting a gradual return to work with necessary accommodations, rather than expecting someone will be able to immediately assume all of their responsibilities.

Read more coverage of the 2024 Vancouver Benefits Summit.