Absence Management: What’s Your Game Plan?

DMEC StaffResources


5 Key Tips to Revolutionize Your Approach

For fans of NFL teams, this time of year is filled with excitement, team loyalty, tailgating, and hopes that no players are injured or absent during the season. If a key player is absent from a game, the team’s performance likely will suffer, and the playoffs may be at risk. Backups will need to be relied upon, the team will need to rally together, and the coaches and medical staff will need to be fully occupied with getting the key player back in the game. Similarly, all employers should be engaged in Return to Work (RTW) efforts with an employee who may need to take time off due to a serious health condition or injury, for himself or a family member. Are you and your team members striving toward returning employees to work efficiently and effectively and celebrating RTW successes? Or are you engulfed in stress, paperwork, and frustration? If it’s the latter, here are some tips to revolutionize your approach to employee leave management:

Key 1: When the Starter Goes Down, the Team Needs to Rally

As you probably know, the reasons for leave are many and varied.

  • For FMLA-related absences the leave is likely due to an employee’s serious health condition.
  • A disability is possibly related to a spinal- or mental health-connected issue.
  • Common Workers’ Compensation injuries are related to musculoskeletal injuries and/or slips, trips, and falls.

Absences related to these types of situations are numerous, costly, and can be detrimental to your team. When an absence occurs, how does your team respond? In a perfect world, camaraderie and synergy should exist, and the team should work together to close the gap left by the absent team member. Unfortunately, in reality, overtime and strained attitudes can cause a team to operate poorly and be the picture of dysfunction. Human Resources (HR) and functional team managers should provide leadership so that not only is the loss of productivity minimized, but neither the team member’s absence nor the absent team member herself is viewed negatively. Have plans in place and set realistic expectations. After all, if Peyton Manning is sidelined, we’re not expecting the same production from his backup. But, we should be able to expect continued leadership and cooperation, maximizing the opportunity for success.

Key 2: The Starter Wishes He Could Be in the Lineup

Don’t be soured by presumed—or proven—abusive behaviors. Every employer has employees she suspects of taking advantage of regulatory and company-provided benefits. Keep in mind that the existence of these types of employees is most likely few and far between. Depending upon the industry you’re in, you may truly suffer more productivity loss and face greater challenges than employers in other industries. Possibly you identify with the following survey results. Gallup’s Cost of Lost Productivity Per Year by Major U.S. Occupations provides a glimpse of the staggering cost of absence broken down by job type: Fortunately, seeing that your business is associated with higher statistics in any of the three columns above doesn’t have to be cause for gloom or despair. Consider an NFL rookie, who is new to his job. One of his greatest desires is to have the opportunity to “get in the game.” Once in the game and experiencing success, it’s quite unlikely this player is interested in voluntarily subbing out. Do your employees have the chance to perform? In any organization there are employees who are interested in excelling, and who want to avoid being absent. Start identifying the characteristics associated with these types of employees so that their attitudes and work ethics are multiplied.

Key 3: Absent Employees are Contacted While Out

Absenteeism does not have to automatically be associated with low morale. According to an Accountemps survey of more than 300 HR managers at U.S. companies with 20 or more employees, employees are looking for more honest, open communication. Employers should regularly, but not obtrusively, communicate with employees: as needed for medical certification, in order to appropriately understand the employee’s situation, and in anticipation of expected Return to Work. Each of these elements should be a part of a well-developed RTW program. Exceptional resources exist including DMEC’s Foundation for Optimal Productivity: The Complete Return to Work Program Manual.

Key 4: Accommodations are Identified/Considered

In the NFL, just because a starting player is injured doesn’t mean they’re void of productivity. Often an injured quarterback provides valuable information related to successfully completing specific offensive plays. In the same way, employers should consider how employees absent with disabilities or Workers’ Compensation injuries can be accommodated in the workplace. For instance, an employee with a lifting restriction of 50 pounds may be qualified to operate other equipment that doesn’t require lifting. The process to accommodate an employee in the workforce begins well before the expected exhaustion date of the absence. Employers should be considering possible accommodations much earlier in the absence so that the team can benefit from the employee’s involvement and so the employee can continue to be rewarded for making a positive workplace contribution. As John Schaefer reminded us in an American Management Association post earlier this year, positive employee morale is based in part on the following:

  • Forming relationships built on trust
  • Showing employees respect
  • Building effective teams

When your team members feel valued, they are more likely to return to work in either full or partial capacity more promptly. When this sense of team and camaraderie exists before injuries or disabilities occur, your “players” will act differently and they will want to come back to work.

Key 5: Returning Employees are Welcomed and Celebrated

Any well-timed return to work should be a celebration, not an end to a bad situation. If, “They’re finally back!” is the predominant tone, then it seems quite likely the work atmosphere is more about ‘I’ and less about team. Work relationships based on trust and respect are more likely associated with this type of welcoming. If a key NFL player is able to return, even after missing 12 games, and able to help a team secure the opportunity for extended competition in the playoffs, his return on the field will be welcomed. Some polishing or tune-up in practice is likely needed, but this type of effort is expected. Are you prepared to welcome back a returning team member? Whether lengthy or short re-integration steps are required, these types of plans should be in place. It aids the employee in not engaging too quickly and ensures continued confidence in her role in the organization. Return to Work efforts will be a part of any successful total absence management strategy. As recent Spring Consulting Group results suggest, 69% of these types of integrated programs include specific RTW programs. What’s in your playbook? Do you need to enhance your current RTW efforts in order to further develop your team, and ensure that your organization can perform and adjust strategy if a key player isn’t in the starting line-up? Take the steps today to ensuring that you have the best plan in place for your company.

By David Spring, MS, CPDM, Business Analyst at Optis. With more than 15 years of experience at Optis, Dave uses his extensive content knowledge and statistical background in working with Optis’ large employer customers on analytic and custom projects. Dave can be reached at david_spring@optis.com.

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