This month’s focus – Returning to work after disability leave

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In 2012, 13.7% of working age Canadians reported having a disability. 

Neglecting to pay attention to disabilities in the workplace can have a large financial impact on a business.  Particularly on small to medium sized businesses where money is tight and human resources are limited.

Photo of people in employment with disabilitiesConsider absenteeism, which is frequent or persistent absence from work.  According to the Conference Board of Canada, the average cost of workplace absenteeism in 2011-12  was $16.6 billion and the average absenteeism rate among Canadian organizations in 2011 was 9.3 days a year, per full time employee.  However, despite the high costs of absenteeism, less than half of Canadian organizations currently track employee absences. 

Now, let’s consider presenteeism, which is attending work while unable to work at full capacity, for instance due to sickness or disability.  This is also costly for Canadian businesses.  The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that costs associated with an employee coming to work while ill or not able to perform their duties adequately can be 7-15 times higher than the costs of absenteeism. 

At Champions, we work with employers in a number of different areas including attraction, recruitment and retention of employees, as well as helping them to develop their overall disability and inclusion policies.  It’s about education, shifting perceptions and in the end, just plain good business sense. 

This month, we are focusing on how employers and employees can work together to facilitate smooth transitions when returning from long term medical or disability leave.  Although common, long term absences can be tough.  With many stakeholders involved and potentially complex bureaucracy, interpersonal relationships in the workplace can be tested.

Recently, we were fortunate to speak with Joanne McCusker.  As an Occupational Health Nurse and Supervisor of Occupational Health at Calfrac Well Services, Joanne specialises in this area and has helped hundreds of employees with smooth transitions back to work.  In general, a return to work translates to greater financial stability and a productive and active lifestyle.  Workers can re-establish social connections, which includes their co-workers.  Employers benefit too, as the return of a team member eliminates extra costs of temporary hires and boosts the morale of the team, e.g.  co-workers no longer feel the pressure of added duties to cover  and Joanne adds, 

“They don't need to feel guilty anymore.  Many employees feel guilty when they miss a day of work, let alone long term absences.”

Joanne notes 4 common difficulties that arise when an employee returns to work after disability leave:
  • Acquiring specific and objective medical information about the individual’s fitness for work.
  • When an employee does not have a complete understanding of their condition and wants to return to work too soon or is too hesitant to return to work.
  • When the employer has limited, meaningful and productive modified duties available to the worker.
  • Communication challenges, with health providers and between employers and/or employees.  
Communication challenges have the potential to cause significant barriers to return to work, workplace relationships, employee retention and presenteeism and absenteeism.  The key to solving these issues is often on-going education and moreover, open communication between stakeholders, e.g., employer or HR representative, health practitioners and employees. 

Joanne's advice for a successful return for work is:
  • Early intervention - start contact with the employee right from the beginning of the absence. 
  • Ongoing, regular follow up while the employee is absent, to keep up a connection to the workplace and give employers a clear and accurate picture of the employee's progress.
  • Obtaining appropriate medical documentation.  This is vital in determining what limitations the employee have and what accommodations the employee may require.
  • Close collaboration and open communication.  During return to work planning all stakeholders should be informed of the process and have an opportunity to provide input.
  • Consider a return to work meeting involving all stakeholders.  Joanne usually conducts these on the first day back when someone has been off for a long period of time or with employees who have had complex mental health issues.
  • A clear and detailed return to work plan with timelines, an outline of expectations, detailed descriptions of limitations/modified duties and accountabilities for all stakeholders is also recommended.
Awareness of these simple pieces of advice will help employers large and small to better manage the return to work transition for employees with disabilities.  

Seeking advice from experts such as Champions or professionals like Joanne, can give all stakeholders the tailored support they may need for a successful return to work and help to reverse the current absenteeism and presenteeism trends in the workplace.

For more information or to get in touch with Joanne or one of Champions' Employment Retention Specialists please call us, 403.265.5374

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