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Are You Controlling the Absence and Disability Management Message?
Episode 225th January 2024 • Absence Management Perspectives • DMEC
00:00:00 00:26:55

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Does your organization consider leave as an event or a part of the employment process? Your answer might determine more than you think! Listen in as DMEC education team experts Kristin Jones, CLMS, PHR, SHRM-CP; and Jess Dudley, CLMS, CPDM, discuss how controlling the message of employee absence can be a deciding factor in program's success! The two discuss how employers can develop a return-to-work program that not only outlines policies but encourages grace in employee interactions and helps team members stay at work and return to work when they are able to do so.


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 network opportunities for absence and disability management professionals. DMEC has become a leading voice in the industry and represents more than 16,000 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 will visit 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 we're talking about how employers can design programs that help employees who are experiencing illness or have an injury stay at work and return to work as soon as possible. This is a concept that is foundational to DMEC, and we've asked Kristen Jones, DMEC director of education programs, and Jess Dudley, DMEC education manager, to join us and provide context on this important issue. So, jumping right into our questions here, how or can a solid return to work program help employers partner differently with employees as well as healthcare providers to help employees stay at work, whether that's remote or in the office, and return from a disability related leave when it is safe to do so? Kristen, would you kick us off here? And then we'll ask Jess to chime in.

Kristin Jones: Hi Heather. Absolutely. So I think a solid return to work program really puts the North Star and the guardrails around our processes for when we have an employee experiencing an event. And I think those things are both really important. I think you want the guardrails in place. You want to make sure, especially when you get all the details of an employee is coming to you. They're nervous or upset sometimes, or there's just a lot going on and there's a lot of information coming. There's also the work. You've got the manager, the operations folks trying to make sure and worrying about are things going to get done? How are we doing this? There's the other cases. There's just a lot. And so having those guardrails in place to make sure we don't fall off the path on what we really need to be doing with managing this claim, supporting the employee, giving them the tools and the resources to stay at work if we can, or at least having those right conversations to discern whether or not that's an option and to go through these processes consistently, but also case by case, which is a hard thing to manage. And so those guardrails are important for that, and then that North Star to kind of help us remember what we're all doing this for, what we're working toward, and kind of that guiding principle of our corporate strategy or our organizational kind of values and strategy, and then also our absence and disability management strategy. We talk a lot about the importance of having strategy around these things so that we're not just doing them more one off. There's kind of a consistent feel, an undertone for what we're doing, and a unification in our program. And so I think that those things are important to have in that process to help make this really smooth and seamless for everyone. I think it makes it easier for the practitioners in our space, and it also creates a better experience for the employee. So I think from the very beginning, having a return-to-work program in place impacts everything because it can really keep an employee at work. I think that's a misconception around return to work is just about bringing someone back when they've been out, but it really can prevent an absence in the first place. And that's why we have training and education like we do here at DMEC around return-to-work programs and how just providing the tools and the resources to help an employer put one in place and manage one, and talking about the importance of it as well. But we provide a lot of resources around that because of how critical it is.

Jess Dudley: A return-to-work program is all about providing information. So whether you're providing information to the employee, setting expectations, communicate, communicate, communicate. Or if it's the provider and letting them know, hey, we can accommodate this and this is how we can do it. It might result in a less restrictive restriction from a provider if they know that you, as the employer, invested just as much as they are to help that employee. So I think having that built into your return-to-work process is an important thing. And just having individuals know where to go look for information and then having a strong interactive process, because that could play an important role to start it early and have the discussion often just.

Kristin Jones: To piggyback on what Jess said. I loved her point around the communication and that it seems so fundamental, but that's such a big part of these return-to-work programs is that communication, and it makes me think of, I had a boss one time when I was an HR manager and I learned so much from him. But one of the things that just really stuck with me was just, it was about communication generally in our programs and the things we were doing and just things with the employees. And he said, if you don't control the message, the message controls you, meaning don't wait, thinking this feels uncomfortable, people aren't going to be happy about it, it's not good news, whatever, and kind of wait to see what gets out there. But you get out ahead of it first and you set the tone and set the message. And I think that's so true with these return-to-work programs. If we don't get out there and communicate these things, what we can accommodate, what we can do, some maybe alternate positions we have available, those things that Jess was mentioning, that's just one aspect of the communication. But if we don't own that messaging, we lose our voice in that. Then the employees don't always know what we're able and willing to do. Most of our employees aren't out on leave routinely. I mean, we all know there's some who are. But thinking about the majority, that's not the average employee's journey with us. And so this is new to them, and so we need to get them the information. And short of us doing that and also getting their practitioner information, they're going to go on assumptions and rumors. So that communication is really important.

Heather Grimshaw: That's a great point, that concept of controlling the message and setting the tone, because especially with these types of absences, to your point, Kristen, there is a lot of anxiety and concern, and people do write their own story if they're not provided with that message. So would you guys say that most employers look at leave as part of the employment process, or is this concept more of a recent development? Jess, I'm going to kick this over to you to get us started here, and then we'll ask Kristin to weigh in.

Jess Dudley: Sure. I feel like leave is kind of in a constant iteration of improvement. So it would make sense to me that it's going to start building or it may be already included in some employee employment processes. There's a wide variety of technology that's now available. It can help automate information that's provided, so it can push it out there in front of the employee proactively and start helping them with their issues. It can centralize it in one spot and provide that message. That's going to be whether you've talked to a supervisor, you look it up online or you have an accommodation expert. It's all one message, it's all there and it can be heard the same. And then it's going to help to streamline some administrative tasks that will allow them to have more time for these interactions. So I think that just with some of that help, the time saving, that technology can provide that. It does allow for employers to get ahead of it and provide some of that just in time information and build it into some of their processes.

Kristin Jones: I love how Jess framed that up as being an iterative process, the absence and disability it really is. You think about where we came from, even just when the FMLA was signed in the early ninety s, and then it's come so far in the way we have looked in our industry, the situations and events that we allow leave for just the culture around what we do. It has changed and evolved so much. And I think Jess is right. There are a lot more tools at our disposal to help us build that in help us build those processes into the employment process. We have information readily available, in most cases in most organizations for our employees that say if and when you need to leave, these are your resources. Here's your information. We understand and talk about and teach the value of employees not only having human resources to get that information from, but being able to just kind of research it on their own. Maybe they're in the early stages of considering a surgery or they know they're looking into family planning for their family and want to kind of see what's out there, but aren't ready yet to have conversations. We've kind of built these things in more. As far as an overall concept of leave being a part of the employment process, I think that's newer in the evolution or in the iterations for this industry. As far as I don't know that and I'm a handful of years now removed from being a practitioner since I've been with DMEC for several years. But I think we were still looking at absence and disability leaves and things like that as an event, but not as a this is going to be a part of your employment lifecycle with us. I think we're seeing that evolve as far as the actual culture we're building around it and the conversation. But that was kind of my thought or my perspective from being six or seven years removed from being in that seat. But I think that goes hand in hand with the overall culture that we are setting and evolving for our workplaces in the absence and disability management specific area and in just a lot of ways that we're interacting with our employees, but I don't know. Jess, what was your experience with that? Did you typically consider leave as just this will happen and it's a part of your lifecycle with us, or was it more of an event focused?

Jess Dudley: Our program was more event focused when I was a practitioner. Handling a caseload and you handle a gamut of it could been their first leave and they had been employed with you for 20 years. It could been their tenth leave and they been employed with you for five years. Yeah, definitely more event focused.

Kristin Jones: And I think too, return to work has always been a big focus in our training and education. At DMEC, we have a lot of resources for return to work to help employers build a program, maintain a program. We also put out a return-to-work microcredential course this year. That was a really big lift and actually was one of the bigger courses that we put out and the development time for that. I think it was a lot longer just to really get that arranged in a way that really would help a practitioner or a manager really kind of structure a program. Everything from understanding the basics of it to building the business case to get buy in and support for it, to how to structure that and how to monitor it and measure it. There's just so much there that I think it really resonates because this is such an important part of our employees life cycles. If you think about it in some form or another, most employees are going to have at least one leave in their time working. And so it makes sense to look at it that way, and it makes sense to have a program that is really robust and strategic and approaches it like that. So I think that's a really valuable tool to help someone who might be hearing this and saying, gosh, these programs and this outlook in this culture, it does make a lot of sense. But how do we get that foundation under us to do that? Because it is a big lift. There are resources out there, and that's just one of them that I'd certainly recommend.

Heather Grimshaw: We hear DMEC speakers as well as authors talk about opportunities for employers to partner differently with employees, as well as healthcare providers to ensure they know about accommodations that can help employees stay at work and return to work as soon as possible. I'm hoping, Kristin, that you can kick us off here in terms of what those opportunities might look like, as well as if this is part of that evolution that you mentioned earlier, or if this is kind of one of those traditional or foundational elements to absence and disability management?

Kristin Jones: Sure, I'd be happy to. And I think there are several challenges with it. Even some of it is just kind of understanding a new culture around this. But I think one of the bigger challenges that I don't think is going to be a shocker for anyone. This is not going to blow anyone's hair back. But time and resources is always a struggle. I mean, we continually do more with less, and that's across all industries, across all organizations. It's just kind of an expectation, but it does make it, or it can make it challenging to really focus in on some of those details. Managing a job bank of restricted duties or alternate assignments, and that communication with managers and the employee and helping make sure we're getting information to and from practitioners. That all takes a lot of time, so that can be challenging. And Jess mentioned technology earlier. That's a huge help. So I don't really see it as much now. But I think earlier on, as we saw technology come into play more, there was maybe a little bit of concern. That is the goal here, to replace jobs. And that's not it. It's to make it to where we can have the people focused on where there's really going to be the value add from that human interaction, from that more critical decision making. So if we can use technology to maybe manage some of the processes for maybe an uncomplicated claim, if we can use our technology there and then focus our human efforts on things like managing these processes to really make a robust program that makes sense, but really just overall that time and resources to do that is, I think a huge struggle for folks. What do you think, Jess?

Jess Dudley: I completely agree. Time, investment, resources all play a huge role. I do find that there's a bit of confusion or there could be pain points related as well. I would kind of throw that under the maybe underinformed or misinformed supervisors and managers. Now, the underinformed I always preferred. They're going to come and ask the questions of you and get the answers. The misinformed, sometimes it's very innocent that they're hanging onto a policy that is now ten or 15 years old and policies have evolved. So they may be basing responses to employee questions on old documentation. Unfortunately, that sometimes can be a pain point as well. And then just for supportive supervisors, I think is really important to have. They can come in an employee. If you don't have a supportive supervisor, they might expect an employee to pick up right where they left off. Productivity goals. Let's go. Service levels right where they should be. Stamina. Full day for you. And we need to understand that employees, when they're coming back, they might need some time to build up those productivity goals, or their service levels might need a little polish on them. They've been off for a little bit, and stamina might not be 100% yet. They're there and they're making the effort. So I think extending grace to employees is an important thing to do, and when it's not done, could become a pain point as well. That's so true.

Kristin Jones: They also just set the culture and the tone around that as well. We can set all the policies we want, but at the end of the day, if your manager feels like your kind of footing at work is in jeopardy, if you go out for a surgery, you're probably thinking twice about scheduling that surgery and putting it off as long as you can until, honestly, you're going to end up being out longer because you put it off. And we know medical things don't usually just resolve themselves and things of that nature, it tends to get worse. So, I mean, it can compound problems when people don't have a culture where they feel like they can take leave. And to Jess's point, the supervisors and managers really are the gatekeeper in a lot of instances to getting that information and sometimes that misinformation. Like, Jessa, I love that you brought up the old policies. I have 100% had supervisors pull out a policy that is literally over a decade old and be like, but this. But that is from a long time ago. That's not current. But gosh, do they hang on to that stuff? And so do the employees. So sometimes the employees have misperceptions around what our policies are around some of these things. Yeah. Having the supervisors and managers engaged, supportive and informed is so critical. That's a really good one, Jess.

Heather Grimshaw: So approach seems to make a really important difference here. One of the articles in our healthcare and wellness issue of DMEC's @Work magazine focuses on the danger of employers not distinguishing between a holiday leave and a disability related or medical related leave, and how this affects and can disenfranchise employees. Jess, you touched on this a little bit earlier, and I'm hoping that you'll share some thoughts on this and talk a little bit about how employers can reassess and retool their approaches to potentially see different results.

Jess Dudley: Sure. I think one approach that's extremely helpful is just to encourage managers and supervisors, everyone really in the process, to just be more human, offer to help employees get support. If you notice they're having an issue, don't ignore the signs that are there. So if an employee is struggling, or if an employee is coming back from a leave, this is a new disability to them. They might not be 100% of what they were, and they might not ever be 100% of what they were. So kind of give them that time to adjust to their new normal and then be cognizant of their feelings and extend some grace. I mean, if I was coming back and for example, I broke my wrist, and when I came back, my finger dexterity wasn't exactly where I wanted it to be or where it used to be, and I was frustrated with that. And frustration can cause people to sometimes be short tempered, might be a little depressed, could get angry easier, just be cognizant of there's kind of an adjustment period when you're coming back from being out injured, or having a procedure done, or lack of sleep with a new baby, all of those things. And I think those things are important to keep in mind.

Kristin Jones: I think, too, a big differentiator for employees who are out on a leave versus being out on a holiday or whatever is you are the only one out in this instance, versus here at DMEC, we have a holiday closure at the end of the year where the office is closed. We're all out. So we're all kind of coming back and adjusting back at the same time. Things have been projects and things have been paused while we're out. We didn't really lose a step in the things that were happening as we all come back together. Whereas if I'm out on a leave, things are still happening, processes are still evolving. I maybe don't have the updated information about this company announcement or this policy or program change and what was going on. So you're getting up to speed and you feel disoriented and quite frankly, kind of left behind. And that can be disorienting when you come back, and it can make you feel like you're kind of othered from everyone else. There's an in group and an out group, and you're now suddenly in the out group because you're not in the know on these things and what's happening. In addition to just trying to get your stride back, you've had a major event while you were out, whether it was you personally with a medical or something like that, or as a caregiver, you had a big disruptor in your life, and that is not something that you just turn off when you go back to work. So I think recognizing those differences and that kind of gradual ramp up and build back, like what Jess was saying, I think is really important. And just coming at it from a supportive perspective, I think is really valuable there.

Jess Dudley: I think sometimes employees, when they're coming back, they may have gone off work very abruptly when they hadn't had time to prepare. And now I've let my coworkers down and are they going to be happy with me? And oh, my gosh, I left them with so much work and we're going to be short and there's a lot of fear, I think, that can come with employees when they're coming back. So I agree. It's letting them have that time to catch up and get reacquainted, kind of with everything that's going on is important.

Kristin Jones: And I think formalizing that process is important, too, because if you think about the people who took on that work while they were gone, understandably, they are ready to say, and not out of any mal intent or being unsympathetic, but everyone has a lot on their plates and so they see a person walk through the door that they're doing work for and they say, great, here's those three tasks back that I have been doing in your absence. And it's like, whoa, whoa, whoa. There needs to be a gradual ramp up for that person because it's just needed to assimilate back into the workplace. But if someone doesn't manage that, understandably, the employees, left to their own devices are going to be like, no, they're back. I don't have those tasks anymore. They're not mine. So that really needs to be structured for everyone involved so that there's not tension around that people know what's happening and it's controlled.

Jess Dudley: Yeah, it kind of goes back to setting the expectation and then communicate, communicate, communicate. Yeah. Yes.

Heather Grimshaw: I think that's great. It sort of brings us full circle, and I think Jess, you mentioned ensuring that people extend grace and reminding everyone in the process that we're all human. And there are going to be needs for ramp-up periods, whether that's modified duties or transitional work. And having, as Kristen mentioned, everything formalized in that return to work, stay-at-work process policy seems to be a key component to success. So I really appreciate you guys taking the time today to shed some light on this and provide context. The fact that both of you have played these roles or been in these roles makes such an important difference. So thank you both.

Kristin Jones: Thank you for having us!

DMEC: If you're interested in learning more about return-to-work programs, check out DMEC's new Building a Return-to-Work Program Microcredential Course, which provides a holistic approach to creating and managing a program that effectively returns employees to work after an injury or illness. Five interactive modules feature real life scenarios, knowledge checks, and a robust resource guide to provide you with information needed to prepare, implement, and monitor a return-to-work program. Learn more at We've also included this link in the notes section of this episode.



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