Help Employers Use Disability Coverage To Create A Return-To-Work Culture

Corporate America witnessed an interesting paradox after September 11. With employees worried about their personal safety and financial security, why didnt this national tragedy catapult group disability to the top of the benefits priority chart?

The answer lies in research we conducted with companies with 500 to 10,000 employees to determine how much time mid-sized employers have to think about disability plans. The answer: 2%. Health care is most on their minds, followed by retirement and a variety of other concerns like employee vacation time.

Since September 11, employers tell us their 2% “mind space” for disability is dwindling. As healthcare pressures escalate, costs are squeezing employer mind space into a virtual headlock.

Because disability is not top of mind, employers say they want a program they dont have to worry about, one that runs smoothly from implementation through communication with employees through reporting, paying and managing claims.

Benefits decision-makers concerns revolve around basic customer service that touches their employees directly, like claims management and fast turnaround on inquiries, because employers are the ones forced to field employee phone calls and get to the bottom of problems when employees have trouble with their disability plan.

Employers want a provider to be responsive, use simple processes, and focus on returning employees to work. In short, employers want a low maintenance, back-to-basics disability program, with the less time spent on it the better.

Disability is the ultimate “bread and butter” benefit, getting employees back to work so they can earn a living while companies restore their workforce productivity. Many companies dont have a handle on the costs of losing their workforce to disabling illnesses or injuries.

American businesses spend about $200 billion annually on time lost from work, with the direct cost of time-off and disability programs running anywhere from 12% to 18% of a typical companys payroll. For a company with $2 million in payroll, absenteeism can cost as much as $360,000 a year. Employers want to ensure theyre getting their moneys worth from their disability program, but many dont get the biggest bang for their buck because they have no corporate return-to-work culture.

Anyone who has tried to change corporate culture in a fast-paced, growth-oriented company knows this is like changing the tires on a moving bus. As cultures shift, there is also the danger of “culture drift,” with old habits seeping back into the organization. Still, there are concrete actions employers can take to transform the workplace into a culture that motivates and rewards employees to return to work:

–Work with a provider who will intervene as early in the disability as possible. Speed counts. Studies show the more time an ill or injured employee is away, the less likely he or she will return. This process begins with Web-based or telephonic reporting that should take no more than three to five minutes. The claim prioritization and resource process should begin the same day the claim is reported.

As part of this process, the provider should capture all the factors that influence return to work, not just medical indicators. For example, a new state-of-the-art disability predictive model can forecast when employees are most likely to return to work based on behavioral and environmental data like how far away from work an employee lives. Through the information this tool tracks, a disability claim receives a score, sending red flags that signal where intervention is needed.

–Look for a provider that handles short- and long-term disability claims as one continuous process. For employers, this means administrative simplicity, consistent claim team understanding of case-specific needs, and early intervention in managing disability claims. For employees, there are no gaps or lapses in benefits payments, no need to refile a claim for long-term disability, and return-to-work expert resources.

–Eliminate company requirements that mandate employees to do 100% of the duties of their job before they can return to work. Be creative in designing temporary assignments that suit employees abilities. “Light duty” or modified work assignments can be a solid first step back into the workplace. Studies show that more than 90% of employees who go back to work part-time eventually return full-time.

–Design job descriptions for employees that spell out their duties as well as the specific physical requirements of the job; for example, how much lifting, bending, or standing is involved? This gives insight into opportunities that may exist to modify the work environment or job duties.

–Dont limit the number of trial workdays that an employee can attempt to return to work during the benefit waiting period. Disability plans that have a 30-day trial work day provision, for example, discourage employees from trying to return to work for fear that the benefit waiting period will start over again if they cant work the 30 days.

–Develop communication training programs for front-line managers. Employers have found dramatic improvements in speeding up return-to-work if an employees manager keeps in touch and establishes the expectation for the employee to return.

–Communicate the companys return-to-work policy and highlight the provisions of the disability plan that reward quick and safe return to work.

Disability coverage can play an important role in strengthening the employee-employer relationship. Companies that are successful in creating a strong corporate return-to-work culture will reap the benefits of improved productivity, lower lost-time costs, and enhanced employee morale–ultimately, retaining the valued employees needed most to help achieve their companys profitable growth goals.

Scott Storrer is Senior Vice President, CIGNA Disability Management Solutions and Customer Service.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 9, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.