Why engagement is critical to managing short-term disability leaves

When support staff working for British Columbia’s public education system call in sick for up to six consecutive days, they receive notification from a union representative informing them of an imminent call from a health-care management specialist employed by Desjardins Insurance.

The process is part of the joint early-intervention service, a program undertaken by the Public Education Benefits Trust several years ago to support employees on short-term leave, according to Rob Hewitt, a trustee for the organization.

Hewitt says while the B.C. health and welfare trust provides short-term disability benefits based on the applicable collective agreement, the early-intervention service is a separate entity whose main goal is to help staff return to work. If the employee is suffering from a cold or flu, the health-care management specialist leaves the absence as is. But if the employee reports a condition that requires followup, the health-care management specialist “will look for opportunities to expedite treatment, get better treatment or help find a doctor,” says Hewitt.

The approach is an example of engagement with employees as a tool to address absences, something industry participants say is important for dealing with short-term disability leaves.

Read: The need for a strategic response to absence management

“If an employer takes a hands-off approach from the workplace, it’s very easy for a culture of absence to emerge . . . even a culture of disability,” says Dennis Donnelly, president of Donnelly Management Advisory Services Ltd. “What happens is that the [employee] becomes psychologically adjusted to being away from the work site and feels disconnected from their job and it’s harder to bring them back.”

It’s important for employees on short-term disability leaves to maintain a connection to the workplace, says Sil Cabral, director of group life and disability at the Equitable Life Insurance Co. of Canada. Employers should “not underscore the importance of a simple phone call from a manager after each weekly meeting,” he says, noting it’s useful for employees to be aware of any changes at work.

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“Whatever [the communications] may be, the real point is they’re not forgotten, they’re not set aside, they’re an important piece to the company, to the goals of the company. That’s the real important value there,” says Cabral.

The purpose of phone calls isn’t for the employer to invite employees on short-term disability leave to social functions but to convey a caring attitude and show support, says Lynn Shaw, a professor and director of the School of Occupational Therapy at Dalhousie University.

“When you’re out of the workplace for periods of time, there’s a shift in who you are as a person from the idea of yourself as a worker to someone who has an illness or health condition,” she says.

Getting managers on board

Equally as important is for direct supervisors or managers to be the ones contacting employees on leave, says Donnelly. “An organization shouldn’t have the mindset that managing people is done back in the HR department,” he says. “Every manager who has one or more person reporting to them should have the skill set to engage in people management.”

For those who don’t have the skills, training is critical, adds Donnelly. Not only does it give them the knowledge to discuss sensitive information with employees but it also helps them learn how to be comfortable so they avoid “awkward conversations or missteps that could lead to employment standards breaches.”

Read: Should employees be able to report sickness via text, social media?

Communications training can also prepare managers by helping them cope with the psychological effects that arise from employees going on leave, says Shaw. “Sometimes, it’s very challenging for them when they’re playing that role in trying to keep the organization functioning and running,” she says.

Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

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