“Record-Scratch” Moments from the 2023 DMEC Annual Conference

Heather Grimshaw

Listen in as DMEC subject matter experts share takeaways and favorite moments from the 2023 DMEC Annual Conference. From inspiring keynote speakers to breaking news about psychedelic drugs to treat mental illness, and important reminders about the meaningful work absence managers do, hear what resonated with Bryon Bass, CLMS, incoming DMEC CEO; Kristin Jones, CLMS, DMEC director of education; and Jess Dudley, CLMS, DMEC education manager.

Resources mentioned during this episode:


DMEC: Welcome to absence. Management perspectives. A DMEC podcast. The Disability Management Employer Coalition, or DMEC, as we're known by most people, provides focused education, knowledge and networking opportunities for absence and disability management professionals. DMEC has become a leading voice in the industry and represents more than 18,000 professionals from organizations of all sizes across the United States and Canada. This podcast series will focus on industry perspectives and provide the opportunity to delve more deeply into issues that affect DMEC members and the community as a whole. We're thrilled to have you with us and hope you'll visit us@dmec.org to get a full picture of what we have to offer. From webinars and publications to conferences, certifications and much more. Let's get started and meet the people behind the processes.

Heather Grimshaw: Hi, we're glad you're listening. I'm Heather Grimshaw, communications manager for DMEC, and today we're talking about the 2023 DMEC annual conference, which was held August 14 through 17th in San Diego. We've got several DMEC subject matter experts with us today to share a few takeaways from our four-day event. You'll hear from Bryon Bass, DMEC's incoming CEO. Kristen Jones, DMEC's Director of Education Programs, and Jess Dudley, DMEC's education Manager. So let's dive in. I'm hoping we can do a round robin high level takeaway to get the conversation started. Kristen and Jess, let's start with you.

Kristin Jones: Great. Thanks Heather. I will jump off. This is Kristen. This isn't necessarily something new but kind of one of the high-level takeaways I took was just a really good reminder in some of the sessions about the significance of our how and how we conduct ourselves in what we do and how we do our work. And I know we have, I think, the very best professionals, but sometimes, especially when you're kind of feeling burnt out or a little bit cynical, sometimes you can lose that memory or that reminder of the how being so important and just how our words and our processes really matter to people. And we're reaching people at a really vulnerable time in their lives when they're on leave. Whether it's a positive leave for a new baby or someone coming home from a deployment or whether it's a more emotionally charged or difficult leave or disability accommodation, it is a vulnerable time. And how we conduct ourselves and the words we use really matter. Where that really came in for me in the conference was there was a really interesting conversation in one of our sessions, and it actually came about from an attendee question. And they were discussing an issue that they're experiencing in their accommodation process, where they're approaching the discussions with the employee. And they've had this multiple times, but asking for they're asking the employee for medical documentation to support their disability. The employee who is neurodiverse and requesting an accommodation because their neurodivergence poses challenges for them in doing their job is really pushing back on that because they don't identify as disabled. And in fact, they really took umbrage with the disability terminology that we tend to use in what we do and in these interactions. And that situation really resonated across attendees in that room. So it wasn't just an isolated experience, there were multiple people speaking up saying that they have experienced that and we had a really good discussion around that was just a nomenclature issue. Both parties really wanted the same thing to work through the accommodation process but the language that they were using was putting up a barrier preventing that conversation from going forward. So it really just kind of settled in. I think for a lot of us in that room about sometimes we get frustrated if things aren't moving forward or people don't feel we don't feel like people are working with us in good faith. And sometimes it's things like this and that how that reaches someone to the depths of their identity as a person is so important. And really the importance of stepping back and understanding the issue and taking time with it and understanding where people are coming from. So that was a really good reminder for me.

Jess Dudley: I think you make a great point there Kristen. I was going to kind of more broadly approach it as my summary of my high-level takeaways is four days filled with these. I believe one of our presenters used the term record scratch moments or those AHA moments. I mean we heard about everything from well-being strategies to complex cases, interactive process and of course we included a huge side bowl of alphabet soup with the EAP and the PFL, PWFA Malay, the Ada, all of it. And then I really enjoyed starting off with Raven and ending with Mark. I thought those were some great bookends and they were both amazing and they had such valuable messages to share.

Heather Grimshaw: I really appreciate both of those because there were so many different themes shared during the conference and I'm going to kick it over to Bryon now to weigh in.

Bryon Bass: Thanks Heather. I would agree with everything that Kristen and Jess just shared. I had very similar takeaways. I think that from my perspective and from many other perspectives of the attendees this year, there was a significant amount of excitement around the more balanced and diverse set of topics that we had at the conference. And even though it was balanced and diverse, there were some very similar key trends that were pervasive in every single presentation. And really what I would condense that into being is really I'm starting to see more of an embrace, if you will, to ensuring we understand that we are all different and that we all approach things in a different way. So to what Jess was saying in terms know, meeting people where they are in terms of the things that might resonate with one individual. And Kristen, what you heard in your session related to the use of claim-speak and jargon, and really it was off putting to the person on the other end. And I think it's important for us as professionals to take a step back and remember that we need to meet people where they are and they're not always in the same place. And those of us that are professionals that have been in this profession, it doesn't matter if you've been in it for a year or ten or 20 or 30 years. We tend to get ourselves caught up in our own terminology and our words and our acronyms. And what is understandable to us is not understandable to the other person on the other end. This is complex work that we do. The reason that all of us come together in a fellowship is so that we can learn from each other and to really simplify as much as we possible these complex things. So if we're trying to do that for ourselves as a community, can you imagine how the person on the other end might feel if this is the first time they've gone through a process they don't understand? They're having difficulty navigating the health care system. They have a challenging time with a family member or themselves or even those that are celebrating the fact that they have a new baby or new child in their life and they want to bond with them. We just need to take those things into consideration. I think the other thing that I heard talking again around the keynote speakers, but also among many other presentations that I said and is around the concept of generational considerations and how are we taking into account that we have multiple generations in the workforce, and we have more coming in and what their needs are and what are the things that they're focused on. And then as a result, how do we incorporate that into our interaction? I think Raven did an excellent job in terms of asking the audience to participate and take a step back and think about how we bring diversity and inclusion and belonging and accessibility into our everyday work. And I think one of the things that I heard from the audience overall was we need to be more aware of the unconscious bias that we bring in and do everything that we can to ensure that we don't have a bias in our interactions and the things that we're doing with the people that we're supporting.

Heather Grimshaw: I agree. I think I looked around the room after Raven Solomon suggested that audience members participate in that group exercise, and people looked surprised and really pleased to jump in and dig in, which I thought was incredibly valuable. And to tag on to something that Kristen mentioned earlier, some of the feedback and comments or questions that are shared by audience members just create such rich conversation back and forth and provides people with an opportunity to connect a little bit differently.

Kristin Jones: Yeah, I was just going to kind of piggyback on that too. And I think some of that excitement that I think people had when Raven did open the floor for a little bit more of our engagement in her discussion was because she really celebrated and made us ready to celebrate where we, as Bryon said, it's important for us to be ready to meet people where they are. And she really brought that into her conversation with us as well, in that just based on what you're doing or not doing historically doesn't mean it didn't draw a line in the sand between us and them or whatnot she really said. There's space for all of us to meet each other where we are, but also to have a part in this conversation and to do something productive for ourselves and for one another. And she really made it feel positive, which I think was really empowering and exciting for people to have it framed up like that.

Heather Grimshaw: So my next question for the group is did any of the information presented during the conference either surprise you or prompt you to rethink or reconsider a more traditional approach to absence and disability management?

Bryon Bass: This is Bryon. I can start. I think one of the sessions that really took me by surprise and really made me take a step back and think about how it could change our industry fundamentally is around the conversation of psychedelics. We've heard a little bit about it, it's been in the news, but I was not aware that there were psychedelics that were so close to being regulated in a way that they could be used in treatment for mental health and in the way that they're being used. And how that was explained was just profound in so much that the evidence is showing that the use of psychedelics in certain types of conditions significantly reduces the treatment time that's necessary. And in many cases you can say that individuals are, I'm just quoting an air here, cured of the ailment. But more importantly is the cost associated with the use of the psychedelics because all of them are in generic form, so they cost like one dollars versus thousands of dollars that we typically see for other types of medication. So taking all those things combined, this can have a really profound impact on how we address mental health and not only in the society but in the work environment and then how it impacts the productivity of individuals overall, not only with them being able to be at work, but when they are at work. That whole presenteeism thing that we talk about where you're not completely there, so that might impact your productivity a little bit. I think that we can see some significant improvements in outcomes overall through the use of psychedelics. So I think that's something that we're going to need to watch going into 2024 and beyond and it's a trend that I'm going to be keeping a close eye on to see how this comes into mainstream medicine and how it works overall for our industry.

Kristin Jones: This is Kristen. If I could jump in and go with this one as well. Next, just because I had the same takeaway as Bryon Or, that was kind of what came to mind for me was the session on regulated psychedelics was incredibly eye opening for me. I did not realize the steps and the process to regulate psychedelic treatment at a federal level. I didn't realize how far down that path we already know in that conversation we were talking about. MDMA is going to the FDA this fall for approval and could be available as early as next spring. That blew my mind and the prediction is that Psilocybin is two to three years away from FDA review, which is no time really when you think about it. So just the pace that that's happening and that the AMA has already approved codes for the primary and secondary sitter for psychedelic administration and learning about that process and what a sitter is in just that was very educational for me. It's right on our doorstep and I didn't feel well informed about it going into that conversation. Certainly have a lot more education to get in there, but I feel like I learned so much sitting in that session and being a part of that conversation and then just how eye opening it was to see how far down that path we are. That blew me away and I think will change our industry significantly. So that was exciting and then also really made me sit back and think about that's going to change a lot in what we do and how we do it here.

Heather Grimshaw: One of the things I did want to mention before we move off of this topic is that DMEC has an article titled How Can Employers Prepare for Psychedelics? in the latest issue of the DMEC @Work magazine and I will include the link to that in the Notes section of this episode.

Jess Dudley: All right, this is Jess and I'm not going to sound like a broken record. I loved that session, but I will move on to maybe something else more to say. I sat in on a few sessions that in different ways touched on the generational differences that we kind of mentioned before and diverse backgrounds and it talked about beliefs and values and expectations and how they all influence our work relationships and our workforce and our whole industry. And I found it fascinating to listen to the presenters talk about how each generation might handle stress or have it a different approach to an issue or a conversation or have a different expectation just based on their lived experience. And it wasn't to say that one group was wrong or one group was right, it was just to say that, hey, we're all different, let's embrace that. And I recall looking around the room and seeing a lot of heads nodding and it was cool. In one session they were presenting information and then we had feedback from different attendees that were in those generational groupings. And just to hear their feedback and why it made sense from their perspective, it was eye opening, kind of, but it's definitely something that gave me an, “Ah, okay, and I'll take that into effect and I'll think about that in the future.”

Heather Grimshaw: One of the things we hear regularly from attendees is that they are inspired by sessions as well as networking with colleagues and hearing new ways to approach challenging issues. So what inspired you during the conference? And Jess, maybe we can start with you for this one.

Jess Dudley: I wouldn't say I'm necessarily surprised. However, with each conference I continue to be inspired by just the family atmosphere where everyone is. They come to the conference and they're there to collaborate and they're there to share knowledge. And whether it's through creating a session that can empower an employee or help someone obtain knowledge needed to perform at their best, or through a discussion with a peer that plays an important role in networking or promoting knowledge being shared, or creating programs, products, services, that type of thing. We have some really amazing members, knowledgeable presenters, of course. And we have wonderful employers and vendors that participate in our conference.

Heather Grimshaw: How about you, Bryon?

Bryon Bass: I would say, same as Jess. I mean, that's always what inspires me during the conference, know, I'm always energized interacting with my tribe and I hear that from almost all the attendees that I interact with at conferences. And this being my first as an incoming CEO, it wasn't really any different. These are still my people; this is my tribe. This is the work that we do. And I think collectively and as a community, we all do things a lot better. I think from an overall inspirational perspective, I really must say that our keynotes and we talked about those earlier, really inspired me, including our closing keynote. I think that they were different, but at the same time they allowed us to think about things and put them into perspectives and really to simplify and understand a little bit more deeply about the importance of the work that we do day in and day out.

Kristin Jones: And then I will close this one out. For me, the most inspiring, and I could not agree more with Jess and Bryon, but I really enjoyed that closing keynote with Mark Schulman. So for anyone who didn't see the program for the conference or the agenda, he is a drummer and he has toured with Pink and Billy Idol and Foreigner and Stevie Nix. I mean, huge names that everybody knows. And he had some really great takeaways from that, just about the power of attitude and the importance of even the little things that we do. And he told a story about a conversation he had. I think it was with Billy Idol. And I think they were well into a tour and kind of playing the same songs night after night, month after month, and how do you really stay invigorated? And Billy Idol told him that he plays every note like it matters and then Mark's takeaway for us, or he really tied that back to us in what we do and know. Every action we take and every conversation we have with someone has an impact on really important things and moments in their lives. And these are really what seem routine and kind of mundane for us are really touchstone moments for the person going through this event or this issue and just that takeaway that. Play every note like it matters really was inspiring, I think, to take the things that sometimes just feel like the daily slog in what we're doing and kind of recognize the importance of that. And I thought that was really moving and really touched people. I know it touched me.

Heather Grimshaw: I'm glad you brought that up, Kristin. That really resonated with me as well. This is Heather just jumping in. I think one of the other things that he mentioned is that even though these are songs that he had played and played for audience members, it was the first time they maybe had ever heard the song. And especially for absence and disability managers, as you all have said today and certainly before, these are difficult times tenuous times in their lives, and this might be the first time they're hearing that message. So I'm really glad you shared that. Thank you.

Kristin Jones: And like Bryon said, know we do this routinely and it even feels overwhelming for us, but what is that like for someone who's never gone through this? It's even bigger for them and more overwhelming. So I think yeah, like you were saying, it's the first time for someone to hear that song or to hear it live or their first concert or whatever it's parallels for us, certainly. So I just really like that message to play every note like it matters.

Heather Grimshaw: Exactly. And I love the fact that he brought up an audience member to learn how to play the drums. We have some great photos of that that we've been sharing on social media. So it was just a terrific session. So which resources shared by speakers throughout the conference do you think will be most helpful to attendees and why? Kristin, maybe we can start with you on this and then go to Bryon next.

Kristin Jones: Sure. It was one of our mental health sessions. We opened the conference with a mental health session, which I thought was really impactful both just in the order of the program, but also the content of that session. And I think industry professionals that we work with here at DMEC, the employers that we work with regularly, we've all been in alignment for years that there's a mental health crisis and we need to do our part to help. And we have talked for years about the things we can do to reduce stigma, to make care available in other measures. But I don't know beyond that that we've gotten far beyond just the concept of the general concepts in this, of that there's an issue and we need to help and some of the things we can do. But I don't think we've historically looked at it and how the workplace and jobs themselves impact mental health and this session did that and I thought that was really powerful. So I think we've done workplace safety with regard to physical health for a really long time. It is normal for every workplace pretty much to do Ergonomics assessments and other when there's inherent risk in a job, we mitigate that where we can. Nobody would really think twice at this point about approving someone's request for a sit stand desk or installing a mechanism to help lift boxes for a package handler. Those are just kind of the norm and it's all around physical health. But for the most part, outside of emergency responders and medical professionals, I don't know that we've looked at mental health in the workplace in the same way. We haven't stepped back and looked at the positions and the workplace environment and identified risks that it might bring. We haven't looked at high volume call centers and said the pace and the nature of these conversations causes a lot of stress. How can we help manage that? And this session in particular gave some really practical advice for what some of the top mental health workplace risk factors are and how employers might address those. So I thought those were some really great resources for people and I think it really presented a path forward for employers to work mental health into their workplace safety measures. And that just felt like really exciting progress in the mental health arena and it felt really attainable and actionable for people. And so I thought that was really exciting and had some great resources.

Bryon Bass: Yeah, I agree Kristen. I think those were exceptional resources, I think for me as well. On the last day of the session, we had Rachel Shaw, of course, doing a session on Ada, and this continues to be one of the biggest challenges for employers and practitioners alike. We frequently see requests from our membership on tools and techniques and practices to better the work that we do from an ADA accommodation perspective. And I think Rachel provided some exceptional resources in terms of getting to more specifics and more data around the restrictions and limitations that an employee may have due to their disabling. You know, for so long, many of us have gone in circles trying to get medical information from healthcare providers. We'll get very broad statements of even so far as well the employee can't work. Okay, well, we understand the employee can't work, but what can't they do? I should be able to make the determination as an accommodation specialist, professional, as to what things they might be able to do in the context of what their restriction and limitations are. But even so much as when you finally get a restriction and limitation and you receive things like no bending, well, what does that mean exactly? And Rachel really dug into that and not only for orthopedic types of situations, but there were significant number of conditions that she had resources and questionnaires that she has developed and provided to the conference attendees as resources that they're able to use to get to that more granular understanding of the restrictions and limitations so that we can be more effective in providing an accommodation that's going to be meaningful and is going to be appropriate for any individual circumstance and situation.

Jess Dudley: I agree. I really liked Rachel's session. I had notes, it was like, you can gather information from people, but it's the data that's objective and that's really what's going to make the difference in those accommodations. I liked the practical advice. I mean, after I got over Catherine and David scaring me that Catherine wasn't going to show up. I really enjoyed their presentation just because they had real life scenarios and they went through them like, this is what it looks like and this is the advice we're going to give of you. And it was practical in that matter to me. And we had a lot of hard data that was given, whether it was through survey results that were noted or benchmarking data, but there was always that handout that you could go and find that information again if you needed it for your program. And then as you just spoke about Bryon, the forms, Rachel had, a bunch of them and I believe can't remember which session it was, but there was an article that was handed out and then just some practical checklists. Start here, go here, do this. It's like a roadmap for an individual because it's a lot to remember at conference, but if you can bring those pieces home with you and reference back to them, I think that's really helpful.

Kristin Jones: And just to clarify, for anyone who was not in David and Catherine's session, it was planned for her. It was a part of her to be, quote unquote, late for the session. But we did panic a little bit thinking that we were missing a speaker because they did not clue us in on their joke.

Heather Grimshaw: Okay, good, thank you for clarifying because I was like, okay, wait, what did I miss there? That sounds big.

Bryon Bass: You know, and one thing I'd like know follow up with in terms of know, one thing that we continue to hear from new members and even members of DMEC for quite some time is the lack of awareness around the amount of resource that we have available on our website. And so I'd like to encourage everyone who's listening, even if you haven't gone to the conference to get the material and the resources that are provided there. We have similar types of resources that are available to all members and we have a significant amount of information on the website. So take a moment, go through and just go right into www.dmec.org and click on resources and you'll see a drop down that has a significant amount of information that's free to you and it's there for you to use and incorporate and bring into your program. So do take advantage of those resources. We work on those so that we can provide them to you because we know those are important. So we want to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to know what's out there and to utilize them to the best of your ability.

Heather Grimshaw: That's a great note Bryon. I think that there's so much content on the DMEC website and so we'll include some links for some of the resources that have been mentioned during this episode. So my last question for this group today is what were some of your favorite experiences during the four-day conference? And Bryon, maybe we can start with you first for this one.

Bryon Bass: Well, my favorite experience, I think I alluded to this already and that know, seeing everyone and getting back together again with the tribe. And it's always energizing to me to engage with our community and to reminisce on things that we've done before, things that we've done today at the conference and things we're going to do into the future. So those are always my favorite experiences. I will also say that I really did like the milkshakes, although I didn't get a boozy one because it was during the hour, during work hours, but I really did like the milkshakes.

Kristin Jones: I'll jump in. So I love a lot about conference for one. I just love getting to talk to a bunch of people because I'm a chatty person. But I think most of all, and Bryon and Jess have both touched on this in different ways in response to various questions, but the excitement and optimism that everyone brings to this and we try to do a lot to help professionals in our space help ourselves and keep ourselves stay energized and excited and enthusiastic and compassionate. And then I come to this and I'm renewed all over again because I realize that, yes, the burnout happens and we have struggle moments, but by and large, people are excited and passionate about what they do and recognize the impact that it has on people and it feels good to get together. I mean, I think we feel in other educational formats as well and in other discussions we have with people, but really getting this group of people together in the same room that there's just a buzz and an energy that I think can't be replicated in other ways. And I think we individually bring excitement and optimism to that and then we. Take it away tenfold. Because it's just infectious. And I think it is just that renewal for so many people that feels so good and that is just so necessary. So I love that. I also really love the food, too. Our conference team plans a delightful menu for us.

Bryon Bass: Absolutely. It's not just the milkshakes. Everything was good.

Kristin Jones: Yes, yes.

Jess Dudley: Well, I'm going to come around with the trifecta. Bryon hit the milkshakes; Kristin hit on the food. And one of my favorite experiences actually ended up being Wednesday night at the beach. Although, if I'm being honest, I was dreading it a little bit.

It was late. I'm a central time zone person. However, it ended up being exactly what I needed that night. The energy on the bus ride was amazing. I was able to talk with individuals that I hadn't had the opportunity to connect with earlier in the week. And then once you got out there, you couldn't help but absorb the energy and you could just see people, they're networking, but it was more like human connection and much more personal, and they were just relaxed and it was like attending a big family event. So hearing that, yeah, the DMEC is a yeah, I get that. But now seeing it as well and experience it, it's made me a believer. I think that's what makes the DMEC so unique.

Heather Grimshaw: Thanks so much to you all. It's been really fun hearing some of your takeaways from the conference. And I am excited to end our episode today by noting that the four live sessions, plus one bonus recorded session that will be shared during the 2023 DMEC virtual annual conference on Wednesday, September 20, have been selected. So those are all published online and you can find the URL in the notes section of this episode. So thank you all again for being with us today.

Kristin Jones: Thank you!

Bryon Bass: Thank you.

Jess Dudley: Yeah, thank you.