Integrated Disability Management in a Challenging Economy

To keep workers on the job, disability management is becoming more proactive and prevention-oriented

By Edwin Quick, Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission Mar 25, 2011

The challenges facing employers continue to be intense: the lingering effects of a prolonged recession, workforce cutbacks, an aging workforce, and the need to “do more with less” to maintain productivity. This is the new economic reality that is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

For HR and disability management professionals, these challenges translate into an even greater need to promote employee health in order to decrease absenteeism and bolster productivity and engagement. At the same time, the “do more with less” attitude applies to workplace health and wellness initiatives that must demonstrate efficiency and efficacy by leveraging resources across benefit lines and departments.

“During the recession and now in the recovery, the attitude among employers was and continues to be, ‘I need my valued employees on the job.’ Workforce cutbacks mean that every employee on the job needs to be there,” commented Lisa Scotton, CDMS, clinical leader for Aon Hewitt’s HRO Point Solutions division. “This attitude underscores the importance of workplace programs.”

A report from the National Business Group on Health's EMPAQ (Employer Measures of Productivity Absence and Quality) initiative affirmed the increasing importance of health and productivity management programs. “Employers will continue to feel the economic pressures from this recession for years to come,” EMPAQ stated. These pressures will make “identifying areas where better tracking, management, and reporting for these programs … all that more critical.”

Given the workplace demographics, especially an aging Baby Boomer population, employees are more likely than ever to express concerns about keeping up with the pace of output that is expected of them.

A Broader Reach

The days of having a single-track focus for each benefit plan or resource are over. It is neither helpful to the employee nor efficient for the employer to view benefit programs as separate. Instead, employers need a holistic view of employees’ needs and how to meet them through the spectrum of benefit programs from group health coverage, disease management and health coaching to workplace interventions, ergonomic assessments and disability management.

The days of a single-track focus for each
benefit plan or resource are over.

As part of this trend, integrated disability management (IDM) initiatives are becoming more proactive and prevention-oriented to keep employees on the job by offering them support and resources through existing benefit lines. Traditionally, IDM has focused on return-to-work and stay-at-work strategies, such as providing modified duties and temporary alternative assignments for those who cannot resume their regular jobs after an illness or injury, whether job-related or nonoccupational.

Now, IDM is broadening its reach, connecting with other departments such as HR/personnel, risk management, safety, health and diversity. The objective is for each discipline to bring its best to the table to meet the needs of the employer for sustained productivity and the needs of employees who require support to keep up with the demands of the work environment.

For example, an employee who has health issues and feels burned out by increased productivity could benefit from interventions such as wellness programs to reduce risk factors (weight loss, exercise, smoking cessation and stress management) as well as counseling through an employee assistance program (EAP). Job modifications such as flexible hours, working at home and technology tools might also be beneficial.

The danger for employers is failing to intervene, which results in a dissatisfied, disgruntled employee—and the potential for litigation. An employee who feels ignored after making requests for assistance and who then is fired for poor performance might be apt to file a claim against the employer under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2010, the EEOC reported, it received an “unprecedented level” of private-sector workplace discrimination filings, numbering nearly 100,000.

Disability Costs

Employers need to be aware of the likelihood that as the economy and job market improve, short-term disability claims could increase. Over the course of the recession, EMPAQ data show, employers’ short-term disability costs decreased to a median cost of $296 per claim in 2009 from $343 in 2008. This trend ran counter to the typical experience during workforce reductions (i.e., increased short-term disability claims as employees take leave for elective procedures). During the 2008-09 recession, however, fear of job loss might have deterred employees from taking short-term disability absences.

Going forward, these employees might opt for the elective procedures they had postponed, which will result in productivity burdens on the rest of the workforce. Employers need to be ready with support for those employees left to pick up the slack as well as those returning after a short-term disability absence.

Looking Ahead

Employers must acknowledge the trends such as the aging of the workforce and unhealthy habits, including obesity and increased risk for diabetes even among young workers. Interventions to promote wellness and improve self-care and management of chronic conditions should leverage existing resources, such as EAPs and on-site occupational health clinics.

Other best practices in IDM include:

Establish policies that map out interventions across the continuum of company resources and how programs will function together, including making referrals. Every department needs to know the resources that exist to help employees who might be struggling with health issues, whether physical or behavioral.

Track data to determine root causes of unscheduled absences and to identify health risks that are prevalent in the employee population (i.e., cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal injuries, etc.) that could lead to future absences.

Examine the return on investment (ROI) of programs, comparing the cost of administering an initiative with cost savings realized as the number and size of claims are reduced. Another factor to consider in ROI is the risk and cost of litigation and EEOC claims, which can be reduced through workplace programs.

With a broader perspective, employers can leverage resources and offer assistance to employees who need support improving or maintaining their health.

Edwin Quick, M.A., MBA, CRC, CCM, CDMS, GPHR, is the chair-elect of the Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission, the only national accredited organization that certifies disability managers. He is currently vice president of disability management services for a Fortune 500 company.

Related Articles:

After a Disability, a Return-to-Work Advocate Helps, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, March 2011

Combined Health and Disability Programs Had Shorter Absences, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, March 2011

Recession's Impact: STD Costs Declined While LTD Costs Surged, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, January 2011

A Coordinated Approach to Disability Management, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, April 2010

IntegratingHealthandProductivityManagement, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, May 2008

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Benefits Discipline

SHRM Online Health Care Reform Resource Page

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