Using the telephone to improve the quality of return-to-work programs for employees with psychiatric problems may be a good way to help the employers you serve cut their group disability claims costs.
Employers rank psychiatric conditions as the disabilities that concern them most.
Since 1985 the incidence of psychiatric disabilities has grown more than 3 times as fast as the incidence of medical and surgical disabilities. Depression alone causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays and $44 billion in lost productivity in the United States each year.
Although companies have come up with many return-to-work programs for group disability claimants with physical disabilities, the same is not true for claimants with psychiatric conditions or for claimants with physical conditions with a psychiatric component.
Typically, a psychiatric return-to-work program consists of routine sessions with a psychotherapist and medication management by a psychiatrist. Often the primary objective of this treatment is focused on things other than returning the employee to the workplace.
Studies have shown that bringing psychiatrically disabled employees together in a group setting that focuses on improving work-related coping skills can expedite their return to work. Groups are more efficient vehicles for delivering skills training, and they also offer a level of peer support which is not available with individual counseling.
However, the group approach has limitations. Group programs can be expensive to develop and maintain. They depend upon a critical mass of enrollees to survive. In addition to requiring a large, concentrated cluster of disabled employees, a successful group program needs highly trained facilitators. Those facilitators may be in short supply in some regions of the county.
One new approach to improving return-to-work preparation programs is to use teleconferencing technology to bring workers with disabilities into a virtual classroom in which participants learn and practice a set of coping skills that prepare them for timely workplace re-entry. These skills are designed to address the claimants’ psychological stress.
Because teleconferencing is relatively inexpensive and makes efficient use of a counselor’s time, it is a promising vehicle for delivering group return-to-work counseling.
A virtual classroom can reach workers in remote locations and workers who have a hard time getting out of their homes because of mobility problems or other obstacles.
Teleconferencing also might be a sensible way to interact with severely disabled employees who may ultimately end up having to telecommute, or at least take desk jobs that involve heavy use of telephones.
Moreover, workers are still more likely to have telephone access than they are to have the kinds of computers and high-speed Internet connections that could allow for high-quality videoconferencing.