Build an Integrated Absence and Disability Program

By Michael Klachefsky, The Standard August 9, 2012

Employee absences, due to disability, injury or sickness, can have a detrimental effect on an organization's bottom line. According to a study by Mercer, an HR consultancy, the total cost of incidental and extended disability absences borne by U.S. employers comes to 8.7 percent of payroll. Included in this total cost is lost productivity.

Problems and Solutions

Employee absences and disabilities can be addressed through return-to-work (RTW) and stay-at-work (SAW) approaches. To begin building an integrated program, these three fundamentals should be considered:

  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs). An EAP offers short-term counseling to employees and their family members, helping them to deal with personal problems that adversely impact their work, health and overall well-being.
  • ​Health advocates. An advocate—usually a registered nurse—can help employees navigate the health care system’s complexities. Their services can include answering questions about a bill, explaining complicated medical terminology, helping find a doctor to perform a particular surgery or negotiating fees.
  • Job accommodations. Simple solutions often can help an employee with a physical or mental health condition to safely recover at work. Accommodations can include ergonomic interventions and certain temporary job modifications, such as hours of work, work location and duties.

Implementing the Program

In addition to the fundamentals above, elements of a successful integrated program can include:

  • Designating one person to be in charge. It is important to put an internal HR manager in charge of all workers’ compensation and nonoccupational programs that manage absence and disability. This individual should act as the primary liaison with all external providers.
  • Ensuring supervisors' support for job accommodations. According to a 2010 Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI) survey, when employers were asked to identify the practices that were the most important for managing their workforce’s health and productivity, a transitional RTW program was one of the most highly rated. Examples of RTW approaches include modifying an employee’s hours of work, work location or workstation.
  • Deploying an on-site consultant. Having a disability management professional, such as a nurse or vocational rehab specialist, in the workplace can help to integrate disability management with a company’s culture. Together with the HR team, the consultant works collaboratively to identify opportunities to keep employees who may be at risk of absence and disability on the job, and to get those out on leave to return to work sooner.
  • Offering on-site medical services. Employer-based medical clinics and pharmacies help employees receive treatment for conditions at their workplace. These services are attractive to employers who want to improve employee health and productivity as well as reduce employee time away from work.
  • Outsourced absence management. Outsourcing management of disability leaves can address the complexities and challenges employers face in ensuring compliance with leave-related regulations.

Achieving Results

An integrated program for managing absence and disability—incorporating an EAP, health advocate, job accommodations and other elements—can:

  • Improve the productivity of a workforce by reducing absences and presenteeism.
  • Reduce direct and indirect costs by getting employees back to work sooner and keeping them productive on the job.
  • Increase employee satisfaction and produce a happier, stronger workforce.

Michael Klachefskyis the national practice leader of The Standard Insurance Company’s Workplace Possibilities program and author of two white papers about The Future of Absence and Disability Management. He has more than 30 years of experience in the absence/disability management and productivity field.

Related SHRM Articles:

Return-to-Work Programs, Flexibility Retain Employees with Disabilities, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, June 2012

Best Practices Help to Manage Disability-Related Absence, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, April 2012

Return-to-Work Programs: A Foundation for Successful Workforce Management, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, February 2009

Return-to-Work/Stay-at-Work Programs: Reduce Lost Time, Boost Productivity, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, March 2008

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Benefits Discipline

SHRM OnlineHealth Care Reform Resource Page

SHRM OnlineWorkplace Flexibility Resource Page

Sign up for SHRM’s free Compensation & Benefits e-newsletter


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs
Post a Job


Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect