By Tom Starner
Employers should pay close attention to policies, practices and processes for employees taking leave during the coming year, according to Terri Rhodes — someone who knows about the critical nature of employee leave.
Rhodes, chief executive officer for the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC), a provider of education, knowledge and networking for absence and disability professionals, adds that as the year progresses, the disability/absence management profession will continue to change, mainly by finding new ways to collaborate with colleagues.
“There’s a growing awareness that we can’t separate the body from the mind and the role that good mental health plays in a safe and productive workplace,” Rhodes says. “Disability and absence management professionals have a great deal to add to the growing national discussion about what should be done to improve all aspects of employee health and well-being.”
The disability and absence management landscape, Rhodes explains, continues to change rapidly. And those legal and regulatory forces are driving a shift in social attitudes about work-life balance.
“It can be a challenge to keep up,” she says. “But there is also great opportunity for disability and absence management professionals to expand their skills and increase their value.”
Rhodes detailed five pivotal disability and absence management trends to watch this year:
Paid Leave: A True National Issue
If paid family and sick leave were issues in 2015, they will certainly be the issues to watch in 2016, Rhodes says. More large employers will follow the likes of Netflix, Facebook, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Amazon and other leading companies to implement or expand their own leave policies. There also will be even more efforts to pass paid leave laws in cities and states, including Washington, D.C. and Maryland. Perhaps as important, the democratic presidential nominee may seek to build on the Family Medical leave Act (FMLA) and make paid federal leave a significant campaign issue.
As a result, that means “more complex process management, heightened compliance demands and increased public attention” to organizations that come under legal or other scrutiny, she says. “This year large numbers of disability and absence management professionals will become leave law experts.”
While Rhodes says there are varied views on a federal paid leave program, some larger organizations want to keep the decision of how much employee leave to provide with their HR strategists.
“Small and midsize organizations see advantages in a single, uniform law,” she says. “This is particularly true with multi-state employers who have difficulty keeping up with the changes.”
ADA Administration Drives Increased Partnering
More employees today are aware of their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Growing numbers of employers will look to their current short-term disability (STD), long-term disability (LTD) insurance and FMLA partners to help them manage the ADA process, Rhodes predicts.
She notes that there are tools and resources, including automated software systems, to help employers manage the accommodation requests and processes associated with ADA, and these tools are increasingly cost effective.
“We will continue to see an increase in partnering to manage growing employee awareness and the accompanying compliance demands,” she says.
Workforce Well-Being Moves Front and Center
The Affordable Care Act has given a large, sustained push to preventing illness. This directly impacts the absence and/or disability that often can accompany those illnesses. From gym memberships to workforce well-being initiatives, wellness is starting to positively impact health care costs. At the same time, disability and absence management professionals are being called to play a larger role in designing and implementing these programs. “That will accelerate this year,” Rhodes says.
In addition, an even larger part of workplace well-being will be an emphasis on behavioral health. More disability and absence management professionals, as well as health practitioners, understand the aforementioned connection between the mind and body in absence, disability and overall health. Rhodes explains that depression and other mental health issues are increasingly recognized as topics of major concern for employee well-being.
Expanded Professional Opportunities
As leave and health care change, absence and disability professionals are confronted with significant new demands. Rhodes says they need to be aware of laws and regulations and new approaches to minimizing health care costs. In progressive companies, this translates into organization-wide cooperation that enables disability professionals to collaborate with different departments.
“This presents professionals with tremendous opportunities to expand their networks, skills, and credentials,” she says, adding that 2016 will see at least one new professional designation.
Increased Strategic EEOC Enforcement
The EEOC’s interest has shifted from individual violations to more systemic workplace discriminations, and this includes pregnancy discrimination. Systemic investigations and cases are effective at addressing workplace discrimination issues on a broad scale in an industry, profession, company or even a specific geographic area. Rhodes says the EEOC issued guidance making clear that failing to accommodate pregnant employees may expose employers to ADA claims based on temporary disabilities caused by pregnancy.
Employee leave is growing as both a political and social issue, she adds. In fact, it really has caught “C Suite” attention, so it will only keep drawing employer interest.
“Strategic EEOC and other enforcement are here to stay,” Rhodes says. “Employers need to address leave compliance in a comprehensive manner, one that moves beyond outdated siloed tactical approaches.”
This article was first published on HRDive and is reproduced with permission. Copyright 2016, Industry Dive.