Imagine the death of a loved one, receiving a mental health diagnosis and, soon after, trying to be productive at work. This is exactly what happened to a hospital care manager. In her day-to-day job, she worked with individuals with eating disorders, but she found counseling patients difficult after the loss of her husband.
After her husband was diagnosed with cancer, this employee spent her husband’s last months at his side as he received treatment — rarely sleeping and struggling to cope. Soon after her husband died, the employee was diagnosed with acute grief reaction and adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression. She sought help from a therapist and joined a grief group, but she was still unable to focus on her job. Counseling patients with eating disorders didn’t seem possible after she’d witnessed her husband’s weight loss during his treatment. Ultimately, this employee took leave from her job to deal with her grief and depression.
No matter the industry or company, employees struggling through health conditions are common workplace occurrences. It’s easy to have empathy for employees in these situations, but what can HR do to provide the right type of support?
First, it’s important to consider the whole person and understand how the complexity of these situations can impact employees. Multidimensional situations like the example above can lead to delayed recovery, or the lengthening of an employee’s medical condition, which can often hinder an employee returning to work. Delayed recovery can be caused by treatments not working as expected, comorbid (or multiple) conditions being present at the same time, financial concerns, complex family issues or child care or elder care concerns.
To help prevent delayed recovery and balance how to help employees either return to work or stay at work and be productive, employers should consider a comprehensive approach to disability management and use their disability carrier to help enforce it. This approach to disability management takes into account both physical and psychosocial issues that could affect employees’ recovery, proactively outlining how to identify and interact with employees, integrate treatment programs and, ultimately, improve outcomes across an organization.
1. Identify the person in need of assistance.
A comprehensive disability carrier should understand an employer’s organizational culture, integrate with the organization’s internal benefits team and help support HR managers in identifying employees in need of stay-at-work or return-to-work assistance.
In the example above, the employee was on disability leave when the disability carrier identified her as someone who could benefit from return-to-work assistance. The carrier recognized the complexity of her situation and her potential for delayed recovery and worked with her employer to proactively discuss how they could help.
2. Interact with the employee.
After reviewing the employee’s disability claim, a disability carrier consultant reached out to the employee, offering support for her return to work. Comprehensive disability carriers often have consultants available to engage an employee in conversation and better understand what factors may be contributing to a delay in their recovery. A consultant can openly talk with an employee to better understand the psychosocial issues that may be impacting them and consider the right resources.
During the conversation, the consultant learned that while the employee was in treatment, her primary care physician and therapist were not in communication with each other. This disconnect was causing the employee additional stress, as she was having to try and navigate the complexities of the health care system while trying to focus on her recovery.
3. Integrate programs to treat employees.
While a disability carrier can offer robust assistance to help an employee with a stay-at-work or return-to-work plan and accommodations, it also can integrate other benefit resources to help an employee get the full range of support they need. This can include partnering with services to help navigate the health care system during treatment or recovery through referrals to other benefits vendors, including disease management, wellness and employee assistance programs, if needed.
After identifying the disconnect between her physician and therapist, the consultant helped facilitate communication between the two providers with the employee’s permission. This was crucial as the specialists were confused as to who was responsible for releasing the employee to resume her job duties. To help the employee with the return-to-work process, the consultant requested necessary records from the physician and therapist and followed up with requests for the documentation to help keep the process moving and ensure the employee could resume work as planned.
4. Improve outcomes.
In the example above, the consultant helped to manage the complex process for the employee, who was better able to focus on her recovery. Ultimately, she was able to return to the job after just a few months.
A comprehensive approach that treats the whole person can help an at-risk employee stay at work and allow an employee with a disabling condition to return to work more quickly. Employer costs may be lowered when employees can return to work and when they are more productive at work upon their return.
With May being Disability Insurance Awareness Month and National Mental Health Month, it’s important to showcase how prevalent disabilities are in the workplace. It’s the perfect time for taking a critical look at disability insurance programs and ensure they are comprehensive. This kind of approach to disability management can address the diverse reasons that may influence or slow down an employee’s recovery process.
Jung Ryu is national accounts practice leader at The Standard, the marketing arm for StanCorp Financial Group Inc. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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