People leader alert: 3 big opportunities in disability management
If you’ve ever been away from work on disability, you’ll know the experience can trigger surprisingly dark emotions and fears:
- Will my medical absence be supported once my claim is submitted?
- Will my co-workers resent my time off when I return to work?
- Will I still have the confidence and skills to be good at my job?
- Will my confidential medical information – the story of my illness – now be known to everyone under the sun?
It’s human nature that an illness or injury requiring some degree of absenteeism can make us psychologically vulnerable and at times think the worst, even when rationally we know our fears may not be justified. This is especially true in situations when our psychological health may be the source of illness.
The point is, there’s a huge opportunity today for HR and people leaders in developing strategies that are genuinely sensitive to the very human difficulties that employees experience before, during and after a disability leave.
In today’s workplace, from the heaviest industrial sectors to the lightest office environments, there are three key opportunities in disability management. In truth they are all variations on the theme of humanizing the experience between employee and employer at critical moments of interaction:
- Intervene early
All too often, when someone goes to their boss and says, “I’m not feeling well,” the immediate response is, “Okay, go see your doctor and we’ll take it from there.” And the person leaves!!
Research tells us that a little gentle inquiry – or empathetic curiosity – can go a long way. Without crossing over the line into medical diagnosis or privacy invasion, a willingness to engage in real conversation with someone about why they’re not feeling up to working may actually help in keeping them at work, and not prematurely put on disability.
Sometimes, all one needs is someone who listens. What’s clear is that when people leaders are trained in early intervention, and engage their people responsibly in dialogue about their health issues when the opportunity arises, the benefits of this type of communication can reduce the incidence and duration of disability.
- Don’t medicalize the nonmedical
The fact is, only 51% of absences are medical. Yet, by and large, the first response of many managers when employees say something’s not right that keeps them from being at work, is to send them to the physician for a diagnosis and the all-important medical note.
But what if the issue isn’t medical? Perhaps it’s a workplace issue, like harassment or bullying, a conflict with a boss or colleague, or related to stress over child or elder care. Maybe a divorce?
Regardless of what the actual issue is, the nearly automatic impulse to “medicalize” the situation won’t help. Physicians understand health and disease. What they aren’t trained to do – and don’t want to do - is assess whether someone is capable of working in a specific workplace or specific job based on all the factors keeping someone from work. That’s what professional case managers do.
- Employee engagement
Finally, and very importantly, the employee concerned should be – and feel – directly involved in developing his or her case management and return-to-work (RTW) action plans.
What we’ve seen, and it’s understandable, is that some people when sick or injured simply don’t want to talk about it, or feel entitled to complete privacy in the matter. Of course privacy is a critical issue. But the degree to which you can clearly communicate the value of someone’s engagement in the process, the better off this person will be.
And so will your organization. Studies have shown that employees engaged in developing their return-to-work plans, and who understand what is precisely involved and by when, are much more likely to return to work successfully.
At the end of the day, these opportunities underscore one obvious reality: the workforce is a social and cultural construct, built around human relationships and communication – or the lack thereof. Acting on that reality will make your organization not only more human – but more successful in the long term.
For a complete view of absence and disability management strategy and best practices, download our free eBook, Best practices in absence & disability management.