Although the rising cost of health care has grabbed headlines, the cost of employee absences has garnered less attention. And yet, the cost to companies when employees miss work is substantial - whether the absence is caused by sick days, disability leave, Workers' Compensation, or other approved leave.

Some expenses include hiring temporary workers, paying overtime, lost productivity, and dissatisfied customers. Furthermore, employee absences stemming from illness or injury may be associated with substantial medical costs. UnumProvident, a provider of income protection insurance, estimates that the ten percent of the work force filing

/img/Graphics/lores_dollar_sign_percent_finance_1_nh.jpgNew Disabilities: 
A Sign of the Times

Repetitive strain injuries (such as carpal tunnel syndrome) are a byproduct of today's technology-driven workplace.

Chronic fatigue, depression, and other stress-related illnesses sometimes result from today's hectic and overloaded lifestyles.

occupational or non-occupational disability claims accounts for 55 percent of a company's medical costs.

The aging of the work force and an increasing number of claims for "new" types of disabilities (see right-hand box) can push the cost of employee absences even higher. Clearly, it is in an employer's financial interest to find ways to better manage disability-related absences. One approach that has shown promise is integrated disability management (IDM).

The goal of this type of program is to manage all employee absences -- regardless of cause -- in a way that results in the employee returning to appropriate work as soon as possible. IDM can be as simple as combining the processes for a company's short-term disability and long-term disability programs, or it can entail integration of all absence/leave programs (sick days, short and long-term disability, workers' compensation), along with the medical plan.

The processes and services that come under a common umbrella in an IDM program can include:

  • Claims reporting;
  • Rehabilitation and return-to-work services;
  • Administration and analysis;
  • Point-of-contact for inquiries; and
  • Case management.

An Effective IDM Program

A key feature of an IDM program should be a system that facilitates easy and early reporting of absences. Such a system provides a "heads up" that an employee is absent. It also triggers a determination of whether the absence is one that needs management to ensure proper medical treatment and a prompt return to work.

Example: An employee experiencing back problems may miss a few days of work when the condition first flares up. After time and without the right treatment, the condition may worsen to the point of a lengthier absence and a short or long-term disability claim. Under a traditional approach to disability claims management, the employee likely would not be contacted for intervention until some point after short-term disability (or even long-term disability) benefits have begun. By then, a disability mentality can set in.

Statistics show the longer an individual is out of work for a disability, the less likely the person is to return.

In contrast, with an integrated approach to disability management and a good absence-reporting system, the employee in the example above could be contacted early on. At that point, the reason for the absence could be determined, and the back strain condition managed to ensure timely and appropriate care. A company can also determine whether workplace adjustments are needed, along with the possibility of the employee returning to work on a reduced schedule or in a modified position until full recovery.

Studies show employers see savings by taking an integrated approach to disability and absence management, although the savings can vary dramatically. An appropriate early return to work can boost employee productivity and morale and lower the costs associated with a disabling condition. This makes integrated disability management a feature to explore when adding or revamping a workplace disability benefit program.


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