The basic tools of disability management build a strong return-to-work ethos at the workplace

With the right tools, employers can lay a strong foundation at the workplace that encourages employees to return to work after a disability, paving the way for productivity gains for employers and job opportunities for employees.

As more and more benefit managers recognise the toll that disability takes on the workplace – with total costs of absenteeism ranging from 12% to 18% of a company's payroll – they are looking for ways to retain capable, committed staff while holding the line on benefits costs. Managing disabling illnesses or injuries enables companies to return valued employees to the workplace and spare precious workplace resources. This proactive approach not only benefits the company's bottom line, but also ensures that employees' needs are met.

Most of us would agree that it is not in employees' best interests to stay out of work while their self-esteem begins to erode and their skills become rusty. By providing the appropriate support to employees, employers can help them regain their confidence and continue earning a living as soon as medically possible.

The following are some basic tools that employers can use to build a strong return-to-work foundation at their companies.

Early and often
Overall, there are some universal truths that apply to the best return-to-work efforts. A good rule of thumb is to intervene as early in the disability event as possible and to communicate often with employees with a disability. Every day counts in returning employees to work, and that's why it is critical that the management of the disability claim begins as soon as the disability is known. Studies have found that the longer employees are out of work, the less likely it is that they will return to work with their employer.

Workforce productivity depends on addressing both the physical and psychological needs of employees, yet employers often overlook the latter. Communication and education are key elements in maintaining a psychologically healthy and productive workforce. Here are some specific initiatives employers should consider:

  • Develop communication training programs for front-line managers. Employers have found dramatic improvements in speeding up return-to-work if an employee's manager keeps in touch with the employee and establishes the expectation for the employee to return. Employers should make sure that their managers know it is part of their job to keep in touch with employees who are out of work due to illness, injuries, or planned surgeries. Companies should provide management with the skills necessary to encourage absent workers to return to work and ease employees' anxiety or embarrassment related to returning to their jobs.

  • Develop and issue a written return-to-work policy. Companies should issue their management team with a written return-to-work policy that outlines the roles and responsibilities of the employee, employer, and disability provider. Encourage managers to discuss the policy with all employees. In this way, when absences do occur, employees understand what is expected of them and how they can help facilitate their own return to work.

  • Communicate the company's return-to-work philosophy. Employers should use their company's internal communication channels to provide highlights of their disability benefit plans to employees.

    Emphasise the provisions in the plans that reward quick and safe return to work.

    Policies and processes
    A strong return-to-work foundation is supported by the way employers structure their disability benefits programs. Consider these proven policies and processes:

  • Develop transitional work programs. Eliminate any company requirements that mandate employees to be able to do 100% of the duties of their job before they can return to work. Be creative in designing temporary assignments that suit employees' physical abilities to get them back to the workplace. ‘Light duty' or modified work assignments can be a solid first step in helping employees feel connected to the workplace. Studies show that more than 90% of employees who go back to work part-time eventually return full-time.

  • Include job requirements in position descriptions. Design job descriptions for employees that spell out their duties as well as the specific physical requirements of the job; for example, how much lifting, bending or standing is entailed in performing the job. In creating job requirements, there is more clarity about the opportunities that may exist to modify the work environment or job duties to open the door to return-to-work.

  • Eliminate contractual penalties for trying to return to work. Employers should offer a disability plan that does not limit the number of trial workdays that an employee can attempt to return to work during the benefit waiting period. Disability plans that have a 30-day trial workday provision, for example, actually discourage employees from trying to return to work for fear that the benefit waiting period will start all over again if they cannot work the 30 days. Design your benefit plan so disincentives such as this are eliminated.

  • Remove incentives to stay at home. Employers should ensure that their disability benefit plan is designed to financially motivate employees to return to work, not stay at home. Specifically, look at the disability benefits that are available from all sources, and designate a benefit that only partially replaces employees' income. As a general guide, disability benefits should not exceed 80% to 85% of net take-home pay or 50% to 70% of gross income.

  • Seamless transition from short-term disability to long-term disability. Look for a benefits provider that handles short and long-term disability (LTD) claims as one continuous process to minimise the personal and financial impact of disabilities on the company. For employers, this means administrative simplicity, consistent claim team understanding of account-specific needs, and early intervention in managing disability claims – which results in returning employees to the workplace more quickly. For employees, this means no gaps in service or lapse in benefits payments, the convenience of telephone claim reporting and no need to refile a claim for LTD, and return-to-work expert resources.

  • Use a contract that supports return-to-work outcomes. A benefits provider should have a disability contract that supports return-to-work outcomes. For example, there should be provisions requiring employees to participate in rehabilitation programs, when appropriate.

    In addition, the contract should not make it economically beneficial for employees to stay at home.

    Offsets such as Social Security, disability benefits provided through no-fault auto insurance, and workers' compensation payments should be specified as offsets to the disability benefits and factored into the benefit payment calculation.

    Of the more than 15 million Americans of working age with a disability, only 26% are working while 79% report they want to work. This statistic speaks volumes about the willingness of most employees with disabilities to be financially independent and make a contribution to the workforce.

    Examples of this ‘can do' attitude are evident throughout many industries where return-to-work strategies prevail. Take, for example, the case of a heating and air-conditioning mechanic with rectal cancer who was able to return to work when CIGNA IntegratedCare worked hand-in-hand with his employer.

    When his physician noted that the mechanic was prone to dehydration and could not be exposed to extreme heat, the employer worked out a schedule allowing the mechanic to work on jobs in the cooler early morning hours. The mechanic returned to a safe environment where his chances for staying at work are excellent.

    Work arrangements
    In another company, a press operator for a packaging company who had testicular cancer was feeling side effects from chemotherapy treatments and was concerned about whether he could return to work part-time. CIGNA IntegratedCare worked with his employer, who was willing to take him back to work part-time when he was ready. His employer assigned a co-worker to the same press to perform some of the heavier lifting functions of the job, hoisting 50-60-pound cylinders. CIGNA IntegratedCare suggested a transitional work arrangement in which the press operator could gradually increase his work by one hour each month. When he experienced fatigue in his legs from standing on a cement floor for increased hours, his employer agreed to purchase antifatigue matting to reduce the shock to his legs. Two months later, with the new matting, the press operator resumed work full time.

    In each of the cases noted above, communication early and often with employee and employer, modified duty assignments, and part-time or transitional workdays combined to bring employees back to work safely. With these kind of tools in place, all companies can successfully build a strong return-to-work foundation that taps into the vast potential of employees with disabilities, enhances employee morale, improves workplace productivity and controls absentee costs.