Supporting disabled employees needs a blend of formal benefits, flex policies

As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world, employee health came into sharp relief.

Employers took action to provide creative solutions to ensure staff remained healthy, with the quick implementation of virtual programs to allow plan members easy access to health-care professionals through online channels.

That same solutions-based attitude of adaptability is useful when considering how to best support employees with specific physical disabilities, says Raja Ramanathan, strategic human resources business partner at chemical company BASF.

It’s all about responding to whatever circumstances are in front of you, he says. “We like to be as flexible as possible, because there is really no one plan that meets everybody’s needs.”

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While plan members with a physical disability can find support through many aspects of a formal benefits plan, like drug coverage or counselling through an employee assistance program, there are other avenues as well, notes Ramanathan. “At one of our sites, we had an employee who has a hearing disability and we always make it a point when that employee is attending meetings to bring in a sign language interpreter.”

Providing specific equipment to facilitate tasks for an employee with disabilities is another way, he says, referring to an employee with vision impairment who requires a large font computer setup.

Flexibility is also key when allowing staff to function on a time frame that makes their lives less complicated. Indeed, 40 per cent of BASF’s Canadian employees used some type of work-from-home arrangement before the coronavirus hit, making these arrangements ubiquitous.

Making gains on pain

Looking to a specific symptom, chronic pain is one manifestation of a physical disability that demonstrates how plan sponsors can incorporate a multidisciplinary approach.

“Chronic pain has been around and talked about in the disability realm for quite some time and it’s actually defined as pain that goes beyond normal recovery but lasts greater than three to six months,” says Carolyn Zinken, benefits consultant and psychological health and safety advisor at NFP Corp.

By the numbers

22% of Canadians over age 15 have one or more disabilities.

• Canadian women (24%) are slightly more likely to have a disability than men (20%).

• Disabilities related to pain, flexibility, mobility and mental health are most common.

• Just 59% of those with disabilities between ages 25 and 64 are employed.

Source: Statistics Canada, 2017

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For employers looking to tackle the issue, it’s important to remember there are many possible solutions to pain management, she adds, noting an employee may benefit from using several different areas of coverage, including drug benefits, alternative pain management such as medical cannabis and paramedical treatments like massage and acupuncture.

However, says Zinken, more benefits relating to mental health are becoming part of the discussion on supporting people suffering from chronic pain. “It definitely has a mental-health component. The longer that pain lasts, the more it impacts your psychological health.”

Cognitive behavioural therapy has been part of treating chronic pain for a while, she adds, but as the treatment becomes increasingly popular from a more general mental-health perspective, more people with chronic pain are likely to gravitate toward the option.

Read: Take a psychological perspective when helping employees manage chronic pain

As far as drug coverage for pain is concerned, developments in biologics to help with pain for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis are one area where costs may be rising, says Anneliesje Warner, health consultant at Segal. However, the advantages of keeping these employees at work are clear. “They’re able to stay at work and contribute to society as they normally did. So I think that’s a huge advancement.”

Martha Porado is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.