A robust absence and disability management program can ensure even nontraditional workers remain healthy and productive.
By Melissa Oliver-Janiak
Maintaining the flexibility that today’s workers demand comes with many challenges for employers. In particular for HR, the competitive economy is putting more pressure on organizations to be prepared when nontraditional employees (remote and temporary workers) experience a disability or absence issue. Developing a robust absence and disability management program is a critical and cost-effective way to help organizations address all employees’ health needs.
Remote and other nontraditional workers present unique challenges for HR managers when administering absence, return-to-work, and disability programs. For example, how can organizations handle an ergonomics issue when an employee is using their own chair and desk? And, if an employee misses work for an extended time, how can HR return them to work when “work” is their home? Given that Gallup reports 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely, this is an issue organizations can’t afford to ignore.
Research suggests there’s an unmet need for all partners who support employee health and productivity to work more closely together. The Standard’s Absence and Disability Readiness Index found that just 38 percent of HR managers surveyed felt ready to support the needs of remote workers and only 16 percent felt ready to address part-time employees and gig workers. Without a comprehensive program to address complex employee health needs—especially in light of changing workplace trends and employee demands—companies could be putting employee engagement, retention, and productivity at risk.
Managing remote workers is just one type of challenge that HR leaders say they don’t feel prepared to handle in the absence and disability space. The Standard’s research also found that just 27 percent of HR decision-makers felt ready to accommodate family and elder care issues, while 25 percent felt ready to support employees’ drug addiction challenges.
Understanding and addressing these trends is important for the health of both employees and the organizations they support. Research finds that a robust disability management approach—programs that provide individualized care through stay-at-work and return-to-work support—can create the conditions remote and part-time workers need to successfully bring them back to work sooner.
For example, an employee with a musculoskeletal condition may be working remotely and not have the proper equipment to manage their condition and pain. Having a program in place that can work with the employee to identify the best equipment—such as reviewing and discussing various sit-stand work station options—and providing that equipment for the employee can ensure they are able to continue working and their condition does not deteriorate. Of employers with formal programs in The Standard’s research, 32 percent averaged better employee productivity, 36 percent averaged higher workplace morale, and 40 percent averaged improved employee retention.
Collaboration between medical, disability, and employee assistance partners is key to creating adequate support for these issues and helping affected employees stay productive. And the investment in proactively addressing these employee needs tends to outweigh the costs. The Index found that nearly 70 percent of HR decision-makers at large companies and one-third at small companies say they’ve experienced complaints or lawsuits related to their disability management practices. And 92 percent of all respondents report that formal employee disability programs have helped control costs and reduced exposure to risk.
Putting an Absence and Disability Plan into Action
The benefits of a comprehensive absence and disability management plan are clear. Consider the following steps in order to put a plan into action to bolster strategies and prevent attrition of talent.
- Provide return-to-work support. Fewer than half of the employers in The Standard’s research had formal return-to-work programs in place. Putting one on the agenda is a great area in which to start.
- Manage accommodations. Be sure to provide the appropriate resources to returning employees.
- Comply with legal regulations. Programs need to meet regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) to maintain compliance.
- Start measuring. Only about one-third of employers with formal programs measure their performance. Start by benchmarking key components of the absence and disability programs.
- Better coordinate program components. Organizations may have a great suite of benefit offerings, but the different pieces often aren’t coordinated well, and employees aren’t aware of the program components. Ensure workers understand the programs that are in place and what they encompass.
Addressing the needs of nontraditional workers should be a top priority for companies looking to retain quality employees. By providing the support workers need to remain in their positions, this will help them to stay productive even during or after trying times.
Melissa Oliver-Janiak is the HR director of benefits at The Standard.