There are many reasons why an employee may be absent from work on any given day. An individual may require time off for illness, bereavement, work-related injury, family emergency, vacation, child care, military leave or even jury duty. If a business is especially sensitive to absenteeism, any unanticipated absence can be problematic.
This is particularly true in certain industries where employees interact with customers on the front line such as retail, healthcare, airlines and education where a lack of labor negatively impacts productivity, sales and safety. For example, if a nurse calls in sick, the hospital may need to mandate overtime, bring in more expensive per diem staff or operate with an undesirable patient to nurse ratio. Replacement staff is often faced with unfamiliar surroundings and assignments, with the result most often being an increase in operating expenses and potential medical errors.
Many employers today use a fragmented approach to employee absence. Absences due to on-the-job injuries often are called into and managed by an insurer or TPA that solely focuses on workers compensation absenteeism. Unexpected illnesses and/or short-term disabilities typically are reported to and managed under policies governed by human resources policies and administered by a separate group of insurers and TPAs.
Depending on the reason for absence, requests for time off may be directed to different internal departments. Some departments do an excellent job of documenting and managing employee absences, while others simply allow incidents to fall through the cracks. While some companies are adept at managing workers' compensation absences, they may lack necessary protocols when it comes to managing disability, Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or military leave requests. The reverse holds true for other organizations. Although managing employee absence has been discussed and dissected for years, the mainstream approach is typically fragmented, non-responsive and lacks coordination in targeting lost productivity and improving employee health.
The good news is total absence management programs are coming of age.
"Emerging technology and establishing a single point of contact on day one are enabling employers to make notable strides in managing all types of employee absences," said Brad Johnson, executive vice president of disability and absence management operations at Sedgwick. "Ultimately, the goal of an employee absence management program is to reduce the duration of any absences so that the employer can have the most productive and healthy workforce possible."
"Historically, managing absence has not been treated as a true strategic business issue, and this is a critical mistake," said Johnson. "Until recently, there have been few options for integrated technology platforms to capture and provide data needed to effectively manage these types of programs. But with today's advanced technology, an understanding of compliance issues and a strong team-oriented focus, an integrated, holistic absence management program can be very successful."
Clearly, technology is the driving force behind a successful absence management program. Employers need an integrated platform that will allow them to capture and compile absence information for any given type of incident whether a 24-hour virus outbreak, a work-related back strain, recovery from a heart attack or a week-long vacation. It is virtually impossible to manage something as complex as employee absence without the technology and resulting data needed to make effective decisions.
"Data gives employers the ability to track absence patterns and plan accordingly," Johnson said.
It is not unusual for some businesses to see spikes in absence rates on the opening day of hunting season, the Friday after Thanksgiving or the Monday after Super Bowl, as these are all notorious days for unexpected absences. Also common is a pattern of employee requests for time off for FMLA if vacation requests have been denied or if allotted vacation has already been expended for the year. Without data to detect such patterns and behaviors, it is difficult for organizations to institute any form of attendance management counseling. Sometimes, the data and information produced by such program analyses can be surprising and counter-intuitive. For instance, one of the management issues uncovered through data mining, is that a primary factor driving intermittent employee absence in many organizations is tied to the level of employee engagement and satisfaction at the workplace versus overall employee wellness.
According to Johnson, "employers with high rates of absenteeism typically see low rates of job satisfaction or employee engagement in feedback surveys or exit interviews. By utilizing data analytics, employers can isolate the cause for low satisfaction or engagement. Being able to capture and analyze data helps employers identify certain environmental factors contributing to absence, and adjustments can be made accordingly. This might entail additional supervisor training or realignments of existing organizations to ensure the maximum productivity of the team."
A single point of contact is another critical component of a successful total absence management program. No longer is it incumbent on the employee to call the risk management department to report a work-related injury or the human resources department to schedule an extended holiday. Under an integrated program, a single point of contact simplifies the reporting procedures for all parties and for all incidents. This immediate triage on the telephone allows the employee to be directed to someone who can assist with an individual request, initiate a proper management response and eliminate the need to report to many different processes, leading to improved productivity and employee satisfaction.
"Additionally, we have found a single point of contact enables organizations to offer their employees additional assistance and guidance," said Johnson. "If someone with a chronic disease or obvious health risk calls to report an absence, the employee can be directed to any internal assistance programs that may help manage the disease or condition. This might entail suggesting a weight loss or smoking cessation program or health-related counseling to better control a condition such as diabetes. This can offer enormous personal and business benefits to those impacted," he explained.
Another benefit of integrating efforts tied to absenteeism is that it allows employers to identify those employees who may benefit from workplace accommodations. Increasingly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its revisions are requiring that employers provide reasonable accommodations. An understanding of an employee's medical conditions and associated restrictions or limitations, helps to facilitate a consistent process and compliance with the ADA.
Finally, establishing expectations and a culture that the management process begins on day one of any absence is also imperative to success. Employers must be proactive and strategic in managing employee absence, just as they would in meeting other organizational goals and objectives. The results can be significant, allowing reduced absenteeism in some instances by up to 20 percent.
Clearly, managing employee absence is challenging. A successful program requires strong technology with an integrated platform, a day-one reporting system with a single point of contact and an intricate understanding of absence-related and compliance issues. Indeed, results are promising as employers effectively utilizing absence management programs are seeing improvement in both increased productivity and cost savings.
(The above piece is part of our continuing Insights series designed to highlight key products and services to our readers. This paid-for Insights was written and edited by Risk & Insurance®
on behalf of our marketing partner. Additional Insights can be found on our Web site at www.riskandinsurance.com/.)
March 28, 2012
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