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Absences from Work - Occupational or Non- Occupational - Does it Really Matter?

By Derek Stern, Director, Workforce Reporting and Insights, Unum

Derek Stern, Director, Workforce Reporting and Insights, Unum

Today’s workforce has many absence options, with employers and employees constantly evaluating the best leave options to fit their uniq ue situations. Should the employee use short term disability, paid family leave, an employer-offered corporate leave or workers compensation? Should the employer be evaluating the applicability of FMLA to the request? What about ADA? Often, different departments within the same organization administer these requests in silos.

Whether the absence reason is occupational or non-occupational, the effect on the organization remains the same. Loss of any employee can have a significant impact on the team, including a decrease in overall work quality and productivity, and a negative impact on the product or services that the organization is delivering. The employee can also lose his/her connection to the workplace and have an anxiety of what awaits upon their return to work. Additionally, this is often the first time that an employee may be experiencing an absence from work, so they’re already in uncharted territory, which can further increase uneasiness with the experience.

Those employers who integrate their absence units tend to have the best outcomes. According to a 2014 paper from Sedgwick, “employers that implemented Integrated Disability Management (IDM) programs reduced their internal administration costs by an estimated 10 to 20 percent. They also decreased days away from work by 10 to 25 percent depending on past administrative practices.”

Rather than directing the employee to separate and distinct units within the company (one for workers compensation, another for short term disability and yet another for FMLA,) industry-leading companies combine their absence management teams into one integrated unit to assist the employee with his/her leave request. This provides the employee with a simplified approach to absences and assures that they have one person within the company guiding them through the disability period. Even if the employee is speaking with multiple IDM team members, they are working within the same structure and can collaborate to assure the best outcomes for the employee.

It should not make a difference if the employee’s absence cause is occupational or non-occupational; the ability to return to work in a modified duty capacity should always be evaluated. An IDM structure allows the employer to better understand the employee’s absence, helping to better determine if there is an opportunity for a return to work in a modified duty capacity. The employee and his/her physician should be engaged in a return to work discussion regardless of the root cause of the absence. If the employer can support a return to work within the physician-defined restrictions, an offer should be made to the employee for a return to work.

Absence from work has a negative impact for both parties: the employer loses a valuable team member and the employee can lose his or her self-worth, not to mention a portion of their income. Repeated studies have shown that the longer an employee remains away from the workplace, the less likely they are to ever return to work. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has found that the likelihood of an injured worker returning to work drops to 50 percent by the 12th week of leave (Orslene, L. Accommodation, and Compliance Series: Return to Work Programs. Job Accommodation Network (JAN).) Employers, employees, and physicians all have a vested interest in assuring a safe and successful return to work for employees/ patients.

At Unum, we are working with our clients to integrate their leaves into one event-driven process. This allows for better communication with a single point of contact and drives successful outcomes for everyone. We also assist our clients with the creation, implementation and continuous improvement of robust transitional return to work programs that can be applied across all absences throughout an organization.

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