The Loop

Welcome Back: How to Support Workers Returning From Disability Leave

Filed under: Benefits

A recent Employee Disability Leave study by the Standard Insurance Company underpinned the importance of companies supporting workers returning from leave, how to offer this support, and why it's important.

It may be best to start by considering what often happens when a worker does not feel supported. According to the Standard report, he may be less productive, often absent, and the situation may be compounded by feelings of low morale and frustration. In reaction, co-workers may respond with feelings ranging from annoyance to empathy. After all, the plight of one worker can lead to disengagement by many others, creating a chain reaction that could be avoided by establishing a comprehensive disability leave management program.

How an employer chooses to address a worker's return to the job can either positively or negatively impact productivity and the overall employee experience.

In fact, from beginning to end, the way an organization supports a worker from the first contact to time away from work to transitioning back to the job can even affect how long that worker stays away. The more supported he feels, the stronger and more loyal his ties to the company, and the higher likelihood that he will return to work sooner.

How To Provide Support
One of the keys to getting a worker back on the job is to make sure he starts taking leave when he needs it. In other words, the fear of losing one's job or the taboo related to a health condition may prevent him from reaching out to his employer for help.

The Standard report found that workers in this situation frequently delay considering disability leave options because they are worried about negative perceptions by their boss or coworkers. When they do initiate the conversation, they often describe it as a negative experience. In fact, three out of five workers who initially discussed taking leave with their direct supervisor say they were concerned that they may lose their job.

As an alternative, consider assigning an HR representative as the first point of contact for workers considering disability leave. As a better informed proxy, the HR rep can effectively explain the disability program and be readily available for questions – unlike general supervisors. The Standard report found that simply assigning an objective, third-party representative to field this initial consultation can yield some very positive results. For example:

  • Workers who coordinated their disability leave with an HR manager tended to feel more valued, productive, and have a more positive experience.
  • Workers who communicated directly with HR had a shorter leave duration (44 percent faster, on average) than those who worked with their direct supervisor.

With that said, it's important that all direct supervisors are trained on the company's available workplace resources and disability leave management program. This can help managers not only respond to requests for help, but also can arm them with the knowledge to help spot potential mental or physical health conditions that would benefit from temporary leave sooner rather than later. It is important to have a written policy or set of disability leave procedures from first contact to fully- assimilated return.

By educating front-line managers on the value – and corporate philosophy – of taking care of worker needs before they exacerbate, direct supervisors can help improve the effectiveness of a disability leave program and enhance organization-wide morale and retention at the same time.

Another communication strategy that has proven highly effective is to extend appropriate communications while the worker is on leave. The key is not to pressure the worker about when he may return to work, but rather to "check-in" on his progress with supportive messages. Regular, periodic communication with a worker on leave can help him feel more connected to the job and a valued member of the organization.

Program Resources
In the past, programs launched for return-to-work strategies have been more focused on minimizing employer costs. However, recent research has found they can be much more effective at things like enhancing productivity and morale across an organization – with very little additional cost. Moreover, a well-run disability leave management program can help retain talent, which is particularly cost-effective in today's competition for qualified workers.

A comprehensive disability leave management program may include:

  • Disease management program – to help manage conditions that require regular maintenance, such as diabetes or hypertension
  • Employee assistance program (EAP) – to assist with emotional and behavioral health issues such as depression or stress; may offer debt management/financial and legal resources related to disability
  • Wellness program – to encourage healthy behaviors and help eliminate others that may cause or exacerbate a condition that could lead to disability leave
  • Employee Resource Group (ERG) – to encourage employees to work together to address health-related problems and issues that impact their workplace
  • The opportunity to work part time
  • Flexible work schedule
  • Telecommuting
  • The opportunity for transitional or light duties until a worker can fully resume his former role
  • Modifying work responsibilities to support a worker with new limitations
  • Identifying possible re-assignment/re-training opportunities within the organization if returning worker is unable to resume former job
  • Providing health and risk reduction supports during the return-to-work transition period
  • Deploying physical workplace accommodations (e.g., ergonomic) to help make a worker more comfortable on the job

Note that a worker who suffers from a serious illness or injury is at higher comorbidity risk, potentially triggering multiple health conditions at the same time. In fact, it is not uncommon for a person on disability leave to experience depression or anxiety during the recovery process. Offering a holistic combination of physical and mental health resources can help address a worker's conditions that may otherwise delay his recovery.

Another way to make a comprehensive disability leave program work for an organization is to cross train workers to pitch in so that when an employee takes leave, her work is adequately covered. This can help enhance peace of mind for the leaving worker so she doesn't feel rushed to return to work too soon. Cross-training also helps other workers understand the value in case they ever need to take leave.

Why a Disability Leave Management Program Is Important
While there are costs associated with loss of productivity of a worker on leave, it's important to recognize there are employer costs associated with an ailing worker who does not go on leave or does not have an easy transition upon return to the workplace.

These expenses may be related to healthcare, absenteeism, presenteeism, and a higher risk of the employee experiencing an accident and/or making a costly error in his work. Some of the most common health conditions are extremely expensive over a worker's lifetime. For example, costs associated with back pain amount to $444,000 while mood disorders run as high as $232,000.

The more an employer supports a worker before, during and after disability leave, the better the chance of reducing high costs for both the employee and the organization. The key objectives for a comprehensive disability leave management program are to help workers feel valued and to provide resources and accommodations to help them return to work faster.

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