Disability management: Are employers doing what they can to curb absenteeism?

By Eda Shere

In 2016, Canadians lost an average of 9.5 days of work due to illness or disability and family or personal leave.1 This may not sound significant. However, if you consider this is an average, it means every employee was off work for almost 10 days. That’s in addition to their vacation. What would you do if your entire workforce was off work for 9.5 days? This impacts Canadians by over $16 billion annually, and roughly 2.4 per cent of gross annual payroll.2

When you dig deeper into this statistic, over 80 per cent of days missed are due to illness or disability.3 This isn’t just concerning news for employers, it is for employees as well. Employees on disability can feel isolated, feel a loss of self-respect, and a loss of identity. What’s worse is that employees are 50 per cent less likely to ever return to work after being off for just 12 weeks.4 The question remains, what can employers do to help curb absenteeism?

Wellness programs

We’ve all heard about the importance of wellness programs and the impact of them has been well-documented. However, often employers are at a loss for where to start. Knowing your employees’ risk factors will help you get the most out of your wellness program. The aggregate data from an evidence-based health risk assessment (HRA) or on-site biometric screening clinics will help identify target areas.

The Sun Life-Ivey Canadian Wellness Return on Investment Study determined that “wellness programs save about 1.5 to 1.7 days in absenteeism per worker over 12 months, or an estimated $251 per employee per year in savings”.5 That means that if all Canadian workplaces invested in wellness programs, we could reduce the national average of days lost days to eight. However, eight days is still a significant number, and there are more things employers can do to lower this digit.

Health and safety

Most Canadians forget there is an entire organization that is dedicated to eliminating work-related illness and injuries. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) is a national resource for the advancement of workplace health and safety.6 The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) was created to protect workers from hazards on the job and to reduce injuries and time off work.7 Adhering to the act will ensure you are not only meeting your legislative duty, it will also keep your employees safe and reduce absenteeism.

While larger organizations will often employ a health, safety, and environment team, smaller organizations may not. It is important to remember that a third party can help support smaller organizations, acting as their safety specialist. Risk assessments, policy development, and program initiatives to implement said policies are all available to smaller organizations. Taking the right precautions can reduce employer accidents, injury rate, and time away from work.

This can include learning about an employee’s ability to function on the job before they start. Pre-employment medical exams are more common in certain industries than others. A pre-employment exam will look at the physical demands of a job and evaluate if the prospective employee has the ability to meet those demands without risk to themselves or others.  Ensuring employees can safely do the work is paramount to reducing future disability claims and days lost.

Disability programs

Some illness and injuries are preventable, however, we all could be sick at some point and sometimes there is no way around time away from work. When this arises, ensuring you have the right program in place to support your employees and get them back to work quickly and safely will make all the difference.

A journal published by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which includes Canadian studies, focused on employees who, due to a medical condition, should have only been off work for a few days, but ended up being away from work for prolonged periods of time, or even permanently.

The journal cited four key elements employers, insurers, and claim administers can use to improve their disability program and reduce days lost.8

It found that most days lost due to an employee on disability is not because the time off is medically required. It’s due to non-medical reasons, such as ineffective communication between the employee and the employer, poor return-to-work process, a lack of modified duty offerings, and delays in accessing treatment or referrals. Approaching disability claims with the mentality that work can be accommodated, and being aware of non-medical causes can often result in faster return-to-work results.

When an employee is off on disability, the questions asked of their treating physician are often focused around determining eligibility for benefits as opposed to function and return to work. Studies have shown that returning to some type of work can improve recovery.9 Studies also show that activity can also aide recovery, while inactivity can slow down the recovery process. Encouraging physicians to use treatment guidelines that are evidence-based will ensure that inactivity is only recommended when medically necessary. Again, having an occupational health physician available for you to consult and communicate with treating physicians can have an impact on days lost.

Comprehensive approach

There are many ways to curb absenteeism. A comprehensive approach that focuses on having a solid disability program, determining if your employees need accommodations before they start work, a risk assessment to prevent injuries, and a preventative and robust wellness program will all have an impact on days lost. Ensuring your organization is taking this approach can be a daunting task; however, you do not need to tackle this on your own. There are Canadian occupational health providers who help employers keep their employees safe and at work as that is their goal. These providers can implement the comprehensive approach needed to reduce absenteeism and keep employees happy, safe, and healthy. 

Eda Shere is the director of business development at Wellpoint Health.

  1. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/labor60a-eng.htm
  2. The Conference Board of Canada http://www.sunlife.ca/static/canada/Sponsor/About per cent20Group per cent20Benefits/Focus per cent20Update/2013/Special per cent20Edition per cent20- per cent20Sept. per cent2023 per cent20- per cent20 per cent20Sun per cent20Life per cent20co-sponsors per cent20major per cent20new per cent20Conference per cent20Board per cent20of/MissinginAction_SUN per cent20LIFE_EN.pdf
  3. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/labor60a-eng.htm
  4. https://www.acoem.org/PreventingNeedlessWorkDisability.aspx
  5. http://www.sunlife.ca/Canada/sponsor/Group+benefits/Group+benefits+products+&+services/Health+and+wellness/Wellness+ROI+Study?vgnLocale=en_CA
  6. https://www.ccohs.ca/
  7. https://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/faqs/ohsa.php
  8. https://www.acoem.org/PreventingNeedlessWorkDisability.aspx
  9. https://www.acoem.org/PreventingNeedlessWorkDisability.aspx
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