Category Archives: return to work

On Social Media and Return to Work

Employers are understandably worried when workers use third-party social media sites such as Facebook to communicate with each other about work matters.

A recent personal experience has given me a different perspective. In some cases, I believe, these social platforms can provide benefits for both employers and workers.

I was diagnosed with a brain tumor late in November and had surgery on Dec. 2, followed by intensive physical rehabilitation to restore nerve-muscle connections on my left side.

I immediately used Facebook and LinkedIn to update my professional contacts. And I have reaped big benefits from support offered by colleagues at HRE and from former co-workers at other publications around the nation.

That support helps me tap into the power of my network for encouragement and will speed my return to productivity. That suggests to me that these social-media tools may have real value to employers who want to support sick and injured workers and help them quickly get back in the saddle.

FMLA as an Early Indicator

It’s understandable that many employers might view the 20-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act as a serious thorn in their sides, considering the administrative challenges and costs associated with the law. But research released this week by the Integrated Benefits Institute suggests companies might want to set such criticisms aside and look at the bigger picture.

97690329The study, titled “Early Warnings: Using FMLA to Understand and Manage Disability Absence,” found that employees who had a continuous or intermittent FMLA leave in one year were also more likely to submit a short-term-disability claim the next year. Prior use of such leave also predicted slightly longer STD durations.

The findings show that “FMLA is the first indication something could be wrong,” said IBI President Tom Parry during a Forum session detailing the results. Roughly 520,000 employees at 160 employers participated in the research, which looked at data over five years.

Some other findings from the report:

  • The chance for an STD claim was greater for employees with intermittent leaves than those with continuous leaves.
  • A person taking time-off for their own health condition is more predictive of a physical short-term-disability claim than someone who takes time-off for a family member’s condition.
  • STD durations are six to nine days longer when preceded by continuous FMLA claims.
  • FMLA requests were predictive of a future STD claim even when leave is denied. In other words, says IBI Senior Research Associate Brian Gifford (a co-author of the study and presenter at the session), “Just because an employee doesn’t qualify for FMLA when they ask for it doesn’t mean they don’t have a serious medical condition.”
  • Claimants who used intermittent FMLA for their own health conditions prior to an STD claim had a 33 percent greater likelihood of LTD use than employees with no FMLA leaves.

Claimants who used intermittent FMLA for their own health conditions prior to an STD claim had a 33 percent greater likelihood of LTD use than employees with no FMLA leaves.

In light of these findings, IBI researchers suggest that employers, at the time of an FMLA request, might want to connect employees to various resources, such as EAPs and disease-management programs, and engage them in job-accommodation and stay-at-work discussion.

The IBI research also debunked the notion that high intermittent users of FMLA would take off more Mondays or Fridays than low users. (Many often joke FMLA actually stands for the Friday-Monday Leave Act.) “We found no appreciable differences in the weekdays of intermittent leave incidences …” the researchers said.

Employee Health Takes on New Meaning

Two different studies came to my attention at SHRM’s 2012 Annual Conference and Exposition — both underscoring a growing awareness that keeping workers working, and healthy and productive, is probably the best way to cut healthcare costs.

In essence — though as important cost-cutting factors — focusing on plan design and doctors’ and drug costs may be taking a back seat to keeping workers healthy and happy, at work.

One, a just-released report from The Standard Insurance Co.’s Workplace Possibilities program, titled Health-Related Lost Productivity: Causes and Solutions, kind of turns on its ear the notion that medical care and drug costs should be employers’ biggest worries.

It cites recent studies (one in the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine, “Health and Productivity as a Business Strategy: A Multi-Employer Study,” and two others by Mercer and Kronos on the Total Financial Impact of Employee Absences) showing that medical and pharmaceutical costs make up only 30 percent of the total cost of poor employee health.

The other 70 percent can be attributed to what The Standard calls health-related lost productivity costs. Those accrue through presenteeism (workers showing up but not producing at full capacity due to illness) and absenteeism. And the latter costs accrue through all kinds of demons: overtime for the workers left to pick up the pieces, turnover should patients never return, temporary staffing, working slow, late deliveries (because, let’s face it, replacements just don’t know the ropes like the employees themselves), replacement training, customer and variable product quality.

Michael Klachefsky, national practice leader of The Standard’s Workplace Possibilities program and author of the report, calls it the “iceberg concept.”

“These are the hidden costs, like the part of the iceberg under the water’s surface,” he tells me. “Our findings show the people left to pick up the slack are, on average, 15 percent to 44 percent more expensive, and 21 percent to 29 percent less productive.”

His research shows that, for every $1 employers spend on worker medical or pharmacy costs, they absorb at least $2.30 of HRLP costs.

“It’s intuitive,” says Klachefsky, “but no one ever measured it before.”

His company actually bases its services on this concept through numerous proactive fixes, such as on-site wellness and return-to-work consultants, ergonomic advice, products and services, and a blog — — devoted solely to educating employers and employees about ways to avoid medical leave and keep short-term disability from becoming long-term disability.

“We’re doing the 70 percent,” Klachefsky says. “Most others are addressing the 30 percent.”

Also at the conference, SHRM released its 2012 Employee Benefits Survey, showing more employers are offering benefits now that encourage employees to improve their health. Of the 550 randomly selected HR professionals surveyed by SHRM, 45 percent are now offering health and lifestyle coaching, up from 33 percent in 2008, and 35 percent are rewarding — through lower premiums or bonuses — workers who complete health and wellness programs, up from 23 percent in 2008.

“Employers recognize that providing employees with the opportunity to improve their health can increase morale, confidence and productivity,” says Mark J. Schmit, vice president or research at SHRM.

“Organizations continue to look for ways to manage costs as the economy slowly improves,” he says, “[recognizing that] healthier employees … help decrease healthcare costs to employers and employees.”



The Painful End of Maternity Leave

Found a nice reminder today on the Society for Human Resource Management website about just how hard it is for most moms to return to work after maternity leave.

The top video in SHRM’s archive features Cathy Carothers, president of the International Lactation Consultant Association, describing just what returning young mothers go through.

So often, what employers — and employees — focus on are the numbers of weeks and days allowed for maternity leave under state and federal laws (which just so happens to be the focus of the second video, following Carothers’).

What Carothers does is make it very personal and specific — the physical stress of post-birth and lactation, the loss of sleep, the emotional stress around leaving your baby in the arms of someone else … .

I so rarely hear those specific hardships talked about when reporting or writing about young moms returning to work. Hearing Carothers took me right back to my own painful pangs some 30 years ago. And to the much-more-recent experiences of young women in my life and circle of friends.

As Carothers stresses, every employer would do well to consider the special needs — beyond time-and-attendance — that these women come back to work with. (Suggestions might include extra counseling, support or affinity groups, and lactation and rest areas, to name just a few.)

Indeed, the transition from maternity to work would be so much easier for all involved, employers and employees, if organizations catered more to the whole returning new parent, not just the returning employee.



Court: Employers Must Honor Employees’ Self-Described Disabilities

AutoZone Inc. just had a case remanded back to district court in favor of an employee who claimed the company failed to accommodate his severe back pain and related physical limitations. The real stickler of the case — involving a former salesman in the chain’s Macomb, Ill., store — is the appeal court’s ruling that Memphis, Tenn.-based AutoZone should have accepted his personal testimony that he was “substantially limited in the major life activity of caring for himself,” even without any medical documentation to back that particular claim up.

As this account on the site lays it out, the salesman was so debilitated by his back pain that certain kinds of activities — including just mopping the floor — could lead to swelling, spasms and sometimes even vomiting. The story’s a bit complicated, with two different medical leaves and requested medical restrictions involved, the worker’s threatened firing and then ultimate firing, and appellate judges’ rejections of many facets of the salesman’s claims — including the fact that the ADA Amendments Act that became effective in 2009 did not apply to his claims of 2003 through 2005. In fact, to understand the case fully, it’s probably best to read the appellate judges’ entire ruling.

Bottom line, though, the case is heading back to court because appeals court judges ruled AutoZone should have accepted the salesman’s testimony that he was “substantially limited” and should have accommodated him, even though no medical documentation was submitted about his specific limitations. (Both the employee and his wife testified that she had to help him dress and bathe four or five days a week.)

As the hr.blr site points out, “employees need not submit medical documentation of substantial limitations; employers must accept what the employees themselves say about their limits.”

Numbers of Unemployed and Disabled On the Rise

I guess it should come as no real surprise, considering today’s economy and aging workforce, that the numbers of unemployed and disabled Americans is rising. According to this recent study by Allsup, a Social Security disability provider, unemployment for people with disabilities continued to significantly outpace the unemployment rate for other workers throughout 2010.

In fact, the study shows the number of people applying for SSDI benefits reached a record 2.9 million applicants in 2010, the highest on record since the SSDI program began. It appears the number of people who leave the workforce due to a disability and then come to realize they can’t return is climbing.

This recent piece we ran on our magazine’s website, by the managing editor of our sister magazine, Risk & Insurance®, confirms this trend through 2009 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

All of which can and should serve as a reminder to all employers to make sure their disability hiring and return-to-work practices are as proactive as they can be and are making full use of all the resources at their disposal. For instance, this story came across my radar screen about the good work going on in Oklahoma, where that state’s department of rehabilitation services just got a hefty $2.3 million in reimbursement from the Social Security Administration for helping a total of 2,292 clients start new jobs in the 2010 fiscal year. They may not all be as aggressive as Oklahoma’s, but state and federal agencies everywhere are biting at the bit to help employers find good hires from the ranks of the disabled and unemployed. There are tons of resources, including, of course, the Americans with Disabilities Act home page.

Do your due diligence, of course. Know the rules of the ADA and the Family and Medial Leave Act as they apply to returning to work after a disability. Companies continually seem to be getting into trouble around this, the latest on my radar screen being a $3.2 million settlement between the Equal Employment Opportuity Commission and supermarket giant Supervalu.

Bottom line, though, companies can and should be doing more, within legal guidelines, to help put disabled Americans to work. As disability consultant Milt Wright told R&I‘s Managing Editor Cyril Tuohy, they’re “the most overeducated and underemployed people in the country.”