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A Coordinated Approach to Disability Management

Today's challenges demand collaboration between HR and other disciplines

As disability management continues to evolve, the practice reflects a broad spectrum of expertise aimed at meeting the complex needs of employees and employers. Although individual practitioners—particularly those who are certified disability managers—might possess knowledge in all areas of the field, the demands of today’s workplace might be beyond what any one person or department can handle. The breadth of the field calls for greater collaboration across multiple workplace disciplines.

This is being seen more frequently with meaningful partnerships between human resources and disability management professionals to support employee health and wellness, improve workplace safety and administer workplace programs and benefits plans efficiently and in compliance with legal requirements and corporate policies.

Four Practice ‘Domains’

The expanded scope of integrated disability management, focusing on occupational and non-occupational cases, was revealed in field research conducted by the Certification of Disability Management Specialists (CDMS) Commission. Findings of the CDMS Commission’s Role and Function Study identified four major areas or practice within disability management:

Disability and work interruption case management.

Workplace intervention for disability prevention.

Program development, management and evaluation.

Employment leaves and benefits administration.

Traditionally, HR professionals have had the most involvement in the fourth domain: employment leaves and benefits administration. Disability managers, on the other hand, historically have been involved in the first two domains: disability and workplace interruption case management and workplace interventions for disability prevention. Disability management activities have often centered on return-to-work and stay-at-work programs to help ill and injured employees resume working. The third domain—program development, management and evaluation—combines both disciplines.

Comparing Disability Management ‘Domains’

Field research by the Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission revealed four “performance domains” or areas within the practice (see above). Focusing on Domain 1, which reflects traditional disability management activities, and Domain 4, which is usually an HR function, highlights how the two disciplines can collaborate more closely to contribute their expertise.

Domain 1: Disability and Work Interruption Case Management

(Traditional disability management activities)

Perform comprehensive individual case analyses.

Review disability case management interventions.

Promote collaboration among stakeholders.

Develop individualized return-to-work and work-retention plans.

Implement interventions.

Coordinate benefits, services and community resources.

Monitor case progress.

Communicate effectively in compliance with practice standards and regulations.

Develop solutions that optimize the health and employment situation of employees.

Communicate essential elements of benefits and employment policies to employees.

Domain 4: Employment Leaves and Benefits Administration

(Traditional HR activities)

Manage employment leaves in accordance with local, state and federal requirements.

Administer health and welfare plans consistent with government regulations and corporate requirements.

Manage payroll and systems data relevant to employment leaves and benefits.

Identify risks associated with work interruptions and employment leaves.

HR professionals increasingly find themselves involved in what has been a disability manager’s role, while disability managers are more active in benefits areas that have typically been handled by HR. Professionals in these fields are forging partnerships to meet these demands while increasing their competency. In addition, professionals from all disciplines who have the requisite work expertise in disability management are pursuing certification as a means to demonstrate their expertise in the field.

By working more closely together, HR and disability management combine the best of their approaches. For example, the two disciplines strive to achieve desired outcomes through efficient and cost-effective programs that address the specific needs of a targeted employee population. Often, this involves bringing in other workplace disciplines, such as safety and occupational health, as well.

By working more closely together, HR and
disability management combine the best of
their approaches

Team-Based Approach

In contrast with large employers that have entire departments dedicated to HR or safety, the Eugene, Ore.-based utility Eugene Water & Electric, with only 540 employees, has taken an integrated approach by making safety and health part of human resources.

The publicly owned utility, one of the oldest in the Northwest, has created teams that feature disciplines such as safety, disability management, wellness and HR as well as ancillary resources such as occupational health nurses and physical therapists. Cohesion among team members is accomplished by orienting to the desired outcome of “improving lives,” explained Sherry Schumacher, disability program coordinator for the utility. “With that shared vision, we were able to get the emotional buy-in from everyone.”

The lesson for large employers that have separate departments for each function is that by increasing collaboration, it becomes easier to pursue employee-centric programs to support health and wellness while improving productivity and lowering costs related to disability and other unscheduled absences.

Eugene Water & Electric extends its integrated approach to health and safety through all ranks of the company. For example, it presents initiatives to employees holistically, with an emphasis on promoting health and safety on the job and at home. When addressing the results of existing programs or making the case for a new initiative, the safety and health team makes joint presentations to management.

Analysis from Various Perspectives

Another benefit of coordination among workplace programs is the ability to study data from various perspectives. This might involve studying a workers’ compensation case of an employee who broke his leg at work to determine whether there is an underlying safety issue that must be addressed. Or, overall absence and claims data can be analyzed to identify factors that are impacting various benefits programs, such as group health and short-term disability.

Each discipline will view the data through the lens of its expertise, whether benefits administration, return-to-work programs, workplace safety, and so forth. By bringing these perspectives together, synergy is created to improve effectiveness and promote the achievement of positive outcomes.

Data collection and analyses are crucial. Data mining is necessary to achieve a thorough understanding from multiple perspectives of what the claims and absence data indicate with regards to which programs and interventions are working—and what needs to be changed. “Using data and metrics, ask yourself: What are the trends, and how can we make things work better by bringing together the collective minds from across the company?” Schumacher noted.

For example, if data analysis indicates a high incidence of back injuries, how can focusing on safety address the issue? What contribution can wellness make? What about training for employees and supervisors to prevent injuries?

Collaboration creates a road map through the company, identifying ways in which various disciplines and departments can contribute their knowledge and expertise in order to create more effective workplace solutions. HR and disability management, through their complementary and overlapping skills, can pursue comprehensive solutions that achieve improved outcomes.

Debbie L. Cromwell, CDMS, CPDM, CCMP, is chair-elect of the Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission, a nationally accredited organization that certifies disability managers. She is also a principal with Integrated Impact Management, which offers absence management, integrated disability management, and related services.

Cherie L. King, Sc. D., CDMS, CRC, is a commissioner of the CDMS Commission and serves as chair of the CDMS Commission Research and Examination Committee. She is an assistant professor in the Professional and Rehabilitation Counseling Program at Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Conn., and a private rehabilitation and disability management consultant. She is also the chair of the Commission on Standards and Accreditation for the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE).​


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