The need for a strategic response to absence management

Can return-to-work efforts be strategic as well as tactical? If an employee is off work due to injury or illness, isn’t it a simple matter of finding out from the treating physician when you can expect the person to return and what, if any, modified duties or accommodations you need to introduce? That doesn’t sound very strategic.

But from a senior executive perspective, the case is a possible symptom of organizational and financial risks an employer needs to manage.

Employers may not see the issue as a strategic one because they often manage return-to-work cases differently and separately as short-term disability matters, workers’ compensation issues or casual absences. As a result, they may not appreciate the full financial and organizational impacts of the issue.

Read: EPCOR Utilities wins award for absence management process

Consider absenteeism. Most companies don’t have a firm grasp of what their absenteeism rates are and what they’re truly costing their organization. The Conference Board of Canada reported absenteeism cost the Canadian economy about $16.6 billion in 2012. It also found only 46 per cent of companies track vital absence data, with only 15 per cent measuring the actual direct costs of absences.
The problem is nobody owns the absence management efforts. Absence management is usually the responsibility of many departments, including human resources, health and safety and accounting. If the true costs of absenteeism were on the statement of profit and loss, companies would put a lot more effort into managing them.

Read: The importance of integrating treatment with return-to-work plans

To take a strategic view of your return-to-work efforts and understand how they affect your organization, it’s good to start with reviewing your policies and processes to consider the following issues:

How does an employee communicate an absence and to whom?

Too often, the answer is a message left for the supervisor, and weeks could go by before human resources is aware of the call. Early intervention and communication with the right person at the right time can help reduce unnecessary loss of time.

What support do supervisors have to manage absences?
Supervisors need an easy way to approve, track and measure absences in real time. Waiting weeks for a report or asking supervisors to keep spreadsheets or notes can be cumbersome. Of particular importance is having an online system that does the heavy lifting of automatically implementing policies, as well as tracking information, measurement and communication.

Who’s following up with employees when they’re off work?
Employees often have to navigate the medical system on their own, which can cause unnecessary delays. A case manager and patient advocate can support employees and ensure they don’t fall through the cracks.

What’s the cost?
The cost of a return-to-work program includes not just medical support but also the direct and indirect costs of the absence. When it comes to an absence management system, it should have information on the person’s hourly rate and the length of the absence. So if an employee calls in and reports a week-long absence, the company will know the direct cost based on how many hours of work the employee will miss. The results of even a cursory review of your return-to-work policies and procedures will quickly reveal the strategic impact of your efforts. But before turning to the tools available to support return-to-work programs, it’s important to fully understand your absence issues in the first place.

Bill Shapiro is president and chief executive officer of Hamilton, Ont.-based Workplace Medical Corp.

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