Q&A: An Ounce of Disability Prevention

Help prevent disabilities at work, and provide accommodations if they develop.

By Donna M. Owens Jun 1, 2013
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In the 1980s, Marcia Carruthers and Sharon Kaleta were colleagues whose jobs required them to minimize disability risks at a California aerospace company. It was a leap of faith when, in 1992, the pair launched the Disability Management Employer Coalition Inc.

The San Diego-based nonprofit offers employers resources on disability and absence management strategies, productivity, and health. The coalition has some 5,000 members, mostly benefits and disability professionals at large and small corporations and disability insurers in the United States and abroad.

Until recently, Carruthers served as the coalition’s president and chief executive officer. Now she is chairman of the board. Along the way, she has earned an MBA and numerous certifications and has written extensively about workplace disabilities.

What’s the cost of disabilities to employers?

The big word is absenteeism. When someone is off from work—whether it’s due to disability, military leave, jury duty, vacation or whatever—it’s an issue for employers because of lost productivity. A 2010 Mercer survey of 276 employers showed that, on average, employees’ absences annually account for the equivalent of 35 percent of a company’s base payroll.

How many people in the U.S. workforce have disabilities?

Roughly 37 million working people were disabled in 2011, according to the Council for Disability Awareness. The council estimates that 25 percent of today’s 20-year-olds will become disabled and unable to work for three months or more before they retire. So it will be imperative for employers to emphasize wellness programs, including those focused on smoking cessation and exercise, for younger populations.

What can employers do to help prevent employees from developing disabilities?

HR professionals should primarily concentrate on preventing disabilities from occurring in the first place—through disease management, safety measures, wellness programs, ergonomics, behavioral risk assessments—and then focus on the interactive process of accommodation as soon as a disability has been disclosed. Both will ensure early intervention, enhanced productivity and a timely return to work.

What accommodation or absenteeism strategies prove effective?

For people of any age, the principles are the same: prevention, early intervention and getting people into a dialogue about keeping healthy. The lines of communication must be open. If someone has a disability and can’t type on a keyboard, for example, there has to be a process of accommodation. This helps the worker maintain the job and stay productive.

The more successful employers utilize disability management teams to brainstorm solutions to fit an employee’s limitations and job requirements. Job banks, return-to-work coaches and employee assistance program (EAP) interventions improve outcomes and encourage cooperative approaches.

What’s the return on investment from accommodations?

Simply stated, an accommodation is an investment that promises an immediate return—an investment in a qualified worker who happens to have a disability or could become disabled and who is a valuable asset to a business.

But measuring the return on investment of accommodations is more complex. A lawsuit for not accommodating an employee can cost an employer hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But an early return to work—with thoughtful evaluation of job functions and work activities and sometimes the use of assistive devices—can save a long-term-disability claim, which might cost $500,000 to more than a million dollars.

Moreover, the majority of accommodations are not expensive. According to the Job Accommodation Network, a free accommodations service from the U.S. Department of Labor, most accommodations cost less than $500. Many cost nothing.

Many people are living and working longer. Will that lead to a greater proportion of people with disabilities in the workplace?

People are living longer, but more young and middle-aged adults are suffering from disabling conditions including heart disease and cancer. Obesity is increasing among the younger population, which leads to problems like diabetes. Back problems continue to be an issue across the board, along with smoking- and tobacco-related illnesses globally. Add to that the growing population of older workers remaining in the workforce. Stress and mental health issues are on the rise, too. So, you see, disabilities will be a challenge and cost factor for corporations in the years ahead.

How can HR professionals best help employees with mental illnesses that are not always visible and may be difficult to diagnose?

There’s still a societal stigma about mental illness. Managers often put their heads in the sand and ignore red flags or can’t differentiate between performance issues and mental illness. Depression is most prevalent, and some literature suggests that about 20 percent of people deal with depression at some point in their lifetimes.

Talk therapy and pharmacology help many people achieve positive results. Some steps employers can take to help include providing managers and employees with education about mental health, screening services, early intervention and treatment.

What behavioral health screening tools are available? Do they raise privacy concerns?

This is where EAPs can be useful, but most employers don’t do enough to promote those services. There are validated behavioral health screening tools available, such as the Patient Health Questionaire-9, which can be used in connection with a health risk assessment. If an EAP administers these tools appropriately, privacy should not be an issue.

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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