Absence management remains a priority for U.S. companies and employers of all sizes, according to the 2015 Guardian Absence Management Activity Index and Study, released in February along with a summary infographic.
The study, by the Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, showed that employers feel better able to overcome absence management obstacles than in the past, due to more resources and expertise available in the marketplace. For instance, just over half (53 percent) of companies reported facing challenges with applying regulations related to the ADA Amendments Act, down from 60 percent in 2012.
But while many companies have made progress in their absence management efforts, there is still a long way to go. Employers indicated that they still:
• Have difficulty interpreting federal and state leave laws (58 percent of respondents).
• Face challenges ensuring employees will be able to perform their essential duties when they return to work (54 percent).
• Lack the staff resources to manage absenteeism (42 percent).
The study lays out a road map for employers looking to establish effective absence management programs by following the lead of employers that have achieved success. The recommendations are as follows.
Institute a return-to-work program with:
• A written return-to-work policy.
• An interactive process where the employee, manager, HR representative, case manager and/or physician can talk about return-to-work possibilities.
• Guidelines for the duration of disability based on diagnosis.
• Accommodations to help facilitate employees’ return to work.
• Nurse case management.
Be able to obtain reports that include:
• Disability usage patterns.
• Disability claimant status.
• Disability cost.
• Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) usage patterns.
• FMLA claimant status.
• Integrated disability and FMLA information.
Refer employees to health management programs such as:
• An employee assistance program.
• A disease management program.
• A wellness program.
Have a central portal (phone or online) for reporting the following:
• Short-term disability and FMLA absences.
• Other leaves of absence such as sick/vacation leave or paid time off.
Engagement Is Crucial
When asked to name the most critical measures of successful absence management programs, nearly half of employers said employee engagement—by far the top mention. This finding is not surprising given the linkage between employee engagement and productivity, which has been documented in several studies showing that engaged employees miss fewer work days and are more productive.
“It’s imperative for companies to understand the importance of employee absences and how they can significantly compromise workplace productivity and diminish the bottom line,” said Mike Estep, head of group life, disability and supplemental health product development at Guardian. “Employers of any size can no longer afford to view absence management as optional. Given the availability of resources, it is easier than ever to start or improve an existing absence management program and manage it effectively to achieve success.”
Other Return-to-Work Perspectives
Fewer than one-fourth of U.S. organizations with a formal system for tracking planned and unplanned employee absences said their supervisors use a centralized system to track disability/extended leave-related absences, and only one-tenth said supervisors do this for leave associated with the FMLA, according to a 2014 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management and Kronos Inc., a provider of workforce management solutions.
A December 2014 Behavioral Risk Survey report from the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) shows that when HR and disability management professionals were asked what return-to-work activities were in place to assist employees with mental/behavioral health disabilities, respondents strongly indicate referrals to employee assistance programs (EAPs) and other programs (63.1 percent) along with a focus on engagement in the interactive process (57.3 percent) and the development of transitional job modifications (46.4 percent).
Conversely, programs that respondents to the DMEC survey considered the least influential in producing positive return-to-work results for those with mental/behavioral health disabilties were independent medical exams (16.8 percent), return-to-work committees (18.4 percent) and vendor integration or coordination (21 percent).
Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMsmiller.