Getting a Handle on Absence: 6 Things to Know.

Plan sponsors want to know—and do—more about absence in their workplace, according to recent survey results.

Four out of five would like to better understand the rate and causes of absenteeism in their workforce, and currently less than half (43 per cent) formally track absenteeism, reports the 2019 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey.

When we look downstream at the disability benefit, just half (49 per cent) of employers reported having a formal return-to-work process (ranging from just 24 per cent among small employers [fewer than 50 employees] to 69 per cent among large employers [more than 500 employees]). And 54 per cent stated they’re concerned about the use of their long-term disability (LTD) benefit, increasing to 72 per cent among large employers.

Questions and concerns are growing, confirmed advisors and insurers interviewed by TELUS Health. “Plan sponsors are being more diligent about partnering with providers who do more to support absence management. They are asking more pointed questions,” said Dan Licoppe, life and disability manager at Johnston Group.

Employers tend to focus on LTD first, since that’s where the impact on costs and productivity appear to be highest. As suggested by the survey results, however, we need to step well back in order to recognize and address the disconnects between the management of intermittent absenteeism, short-term disability (STD) and LTD.

“When we close these gaps, we make sure that LTD is really there for whom it’s intended: for people with chronic conditions that will never get better or may progressively get worse. For example, people with multiple sclerosis. This is the insurance for them, and that’s great,” noted Licoppe. However, LTD should not typically be for something like a back injury where an employee has some functional limitations. “We can do more to prevent those types of LTD claims.”

He and two other subject matter experts offered the following action steps and insights to build a comprehensive approach for absence management:

  1. Use technology for tracking

Mobile apps are far better at tracking sick days and other intermittent absences than the paper-based, labour-intensive approaches of yesteryear. “An employee enters the information and it immediately goes to the manager [and others as required, including a database],” said Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell. “Very often those who don’t track absences think it’s harder than it actually is. Today’s technology can make it so simple.”

The technology can also flag patterns that could lead to actions to prevent disability leave. “Intermittent absences could be early warning signals of something bigger. But if you don’t have a system for tracking absences, then that absence is not visible. It’s an unmanaged risk,” said Allen. She also warned against using industry averages as a workaround. “There is virtually no value in looking at averages because they hide the truth of what’s happening in your organization.”

  1. Uncork the full value of STD

The STD benefit is too often underdeveloped or even unavailable, noted Allen. “The STD program needs to be very robust, with return-to-work and coverage support that allows the disability manager and employer to get very deep into supporting the path of the individual. STD is a major tool for preventing LTD.”

The lack of a strong STD process also causes communication gaps within the organization, between the managers who work with the absent employees, the HR team and disability case managers—which increases the risk of preventable LTD claims. “It can be weeks or even months before an employer realizes an employee is on disability leave, and by then they’ve missed their best opportunity to ensure that the right treatment is in place, accommodations have been identified and return-to-work barriers have been addressed,” said Laura Pratt, national practice leader, organizational health, Great-West Life.

  1. Don’t wait for 100%

Perhaps one of the simplest steps an employer can take is to remove the proviso that employees must be 100 per cent recovered before returning from STD or LTD leave. “Employers who require 100 per cent recovery are losing money,” stated Allen. “A critical tool for a successful return-to-work is the return to part work before returning to full work. Returning as soon as possible often aids in recovery. It keeps the person connected to the workplace and definitely reduces the risk of LTD.”

  1. Focus on mental health

Perhaps the biggest shift in absence management comes from the growing incidence of mental health issues: increasingly it is the second biggest reason for both STD and LTD. This is partly due to greater awareness and reduced stigma, which lead to higher rates of diagnosis and treatment. The earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the greater the likelihood of recovery. To that end, training is key to absence management in the mental-health space. “Managers, supervisors and staff who handle absences need to have enough knowledge and training to recognize the signs of possible mental illness before it leads to an extended absence, and to successfully support employees as they return from disability leave,” stressed Licoppe.

  1. Assemble multi-stakeholder meetings

Rather than an employer meeting separately with their insurer, the employee assistance program provider and other providers, everyone can meet at once. “We are collectively as an industry trying to do this as a best practice, to gain a better understanding of absence and disability cost drivers for a particular organization,” said Pratt. “When all parties meet, we can talk about what the data actually means. How does the STD data align with what we are seeing in LTD? What about the drug and paramedical space? What is driving EAP usage? Any differences and alignments can inform the actions that we may want to take.”

  1. Be proactive with off-site employees

The changing nature of the workplace means a growing percentage of employees work from home. While benefits include improved work-life balance, absence management becomes uniquely challenging. “Disconnection from workplace can impact mental health,” said Pratt. “There are fewer opportunities to identify issues if an employee is starting to struggle.”

It all comes down to the broader strategy of maintaining the relationship between the employee and the workplace. For off-site employees, digital tools and wellness challenges can play a role to maintain a sense of workplace community. A strong connection between off-site employees and their immediate manager, however, is most important (e.g., through weekly touch-base calls). “Where there is a good channel of communication between the employee and their leader, the employee feels supported if they are struggling and this goes a long way toward ensuring their success at work,” summarized Pratt.

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