Employers Take Closer Look at Health and Disability Programs

By Beth Butler (U.S. Business Leaders Network) and Debbie L. Cromwell (Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission) Sep 24, 2010

In a challenging economic environment, workplace programs are often a tough sell. Efforts to improve health, wellness and return-to-work initiatives are getting a second look as to their effectiveness, and whether they're directly linked to the bottom line.

Given the aging of the workforce, the need to improve health and productivity in a competitive marketplace, and a stronger government mandate regarding employment for people with disabilities, programs that target these areas should be seen as strategic and necessary. Several factors have come together to create an environment in which it is particularly advantageous for employers to offer or expand health- and disability-related programs. Among them:

The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which went into effect in January 2009. The ADAAA essentially reinstates the original intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law nearly 20 years earlier but had been narrowed by numerous court decisions. The ADAAA provides broad interpretation of and protection for people with disabilities, and requires employers to accommodate them.

The Obama administration’s goal of reducing unemployment for people with disabilities, which is as high as 60-70 percent. The federal government is setting an example by increasing its hiring of people with disabilities, enforcing laws and removing barriers to work. As the government places the onus on the private sector to respond, employers must demonstrate good-faith efforts to recruit and retain people with disabilities.

Passage of health care reform legislation in the U.S. puts a greater emphasis on health and wellness in order to decrease health care spending. This has catapulted companies—and providers—into wellness programs.

Taken together, these forces make a strong case for employers to bolster their health, wellness and disability management programs. Consequently, HR and disability management professionals must implement and administer programs that meet goals and objectives such as hiring and keeping valuable employees on the job, promoting swift return to work and elevating the importance of physical and mental health, wellness and productivity.

“It is hard to sell any sort of add-on programs at this time because of economic uncertainty, but there is a business case to be made for these programs, which we can’t lose sight of," observed Merrill Friedman, associate vice president of advocacy and national partnerships for Amerigroup Corp., a managed-care company that employs approximately 4,200 people. "The reality is when there are solid programs in place that improve health or return to work after a health-related absence, morale improves, employee retention rises and productivity is better,” she said.

Action Steps

In order to improve the effectiveness and acceptance of health, wellness and prevention programs, employers should consider these steps, which are based on strategic approaches to disability and absence management and workforce program design.

Assess attitudinal barriers regarding hiring and retaining people with disabilities. Programs to hire and retain people with disabilities will not be effective if the corporate culture cannot overcome attitudes in the workplace that might present barriers. Often reticence to hire people with a disability or to return employees to the workplace after they have become disabled stems from fear. For example, the worry might be that those with disabilities will not be able to perform their jobs safely or could be a risk to themselves or others. Other concerns might reflect an employer’s lack of awareness as to what reasonable accommodations can be made or implemented. Education and support in the workplace can allay those fears and foster a more open and accepting culture. In this way, interventions that support the employment of people with disabilities further diversify the workplace.

Identify the essential functions of each job in order to determine what is required—physically, mentally and cognitively.“Look at each person’s abilities and match them with the essential functions of the job,” commented Skipper Kendrick, president of Kendrick Global Enterprises in Hurst, Texas, and a past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers. “If you don’t measure by knowing what each job requires, how are you going to manage the return-to-work or hiring process?”

Match workforce programs with the company’s mission and culture. Rather than implement an off-the-shelf health and wellness program, initiatives must reflect the mission, vision and values of the organization. The same passion that an employer brings to executing its business strategy must be evidenced in its workplace programs. If an employer believes that human capital is truly an asset, then initiatives that promote health, wellness and productivity are an excellent way to demonstrate that commitment. Often the process of developing these initiatives has a positive impact on the employer’s culture. Programs that engage employees and encourage participation have a better chance of becoming part of the culture. Friedman gave the example of fitness and nutritional programs and walks for charity, which not only promote healthy behaviors but also help to improve morale and teamwork. “The goal is to create a culture in which everyone is involved in health and wellness in the workplace,” she noted.

Use workplace programs to address the aging workforce.As employers are well aware, workplace demographics are changing. The aging of the baby boomer population has created a challenge of how to keep these experienced employees—many of whom are staying in the workforce beyond traditional retirement age—healthy and productive. Older workers, however, run the risk of aging out of their jobs, particularly jobs that are physically demanding.

In addition, with age comes an increase in chronic illness and musculoskeletal disorders. To respond, employers need workforce programs that address the specific needs of older workers to prevent injury and promote wellness and disease management. Ergonomic assessments, accommodations and other interventions to help older workers return to work or stay at work after becoming ill, injured or disabled are paramount.

Make sure programs are staffed by competent, credentialed professionals.Credentialing ensures competency, which is highly relevant in workplace programs. Professionals who have the requisite knowledge and experience—such as certified disability management specialists—improve the quality and efficacy of workplace initiatives and provide credibility and command respect for the programs. Further, having competent, credentialed professionals helps ensure that employers remain compliant with federal and state disability laws regarding such things as accommodations.

Never forget the business case. Although employers are more open today to offering health and wellness initiatives, these programs must be targeted to specific business goals. HR and disability management professionals should make the business case with data and metrics that illustrate how interventions can help the company achieve certain goals such as maximizing productivity, increasing retention and improving employee health and wellbeing. Tracking data and benchmarking results with other firms will show where programs are making gains and where improvements are needed. The effectiveness of any program is evident in the data, to identify red flags and mitigate risk.

When the business case is made to support health and wellness, HR and disability management have a green light to proceed with implementation of programs. In order for these interventions to have the most benefit, they must target outcomes that truly will make a difference in the workplace.

Beth Butler, Esq., is the chair of the U.S. Business Leaders Network, a national disability organization that represents more than 5,000 employers. She is also an accommodations management consultant for Wells Fargo.

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

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