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Employers who intervene soon after employees are first disabled can help them return to work faster and make them happier, while cutting disability-related costs, says Sun Life Financial, an international wealth management and insurance company, and the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI), a nonprofit benefits research organization located in San Francisco.

Employers who move quickly to communicate with and accommodate their disabled workers can help them return to work 20 percent faster.

Employers who move quickly to communicate with and accommodate their disabled workers can help them return to work 20 percent faster, according to Sun Life’s study, “Early Intervention Programs Can Speed Disabled Employees Back to Work.” And IBI’s 2001 study of Steelcase, a Michigan manufacturer of office furniture, showed that worker satisfaction shot up 48 percent from 1997 to 2001 after the company introduced a disability management program that integrated aspects of workers compensation, short and long term disability, and the federal Family Medical Leave Act.

IBI says Steelcase decided to launch an integrated disability management program that features an early return-to-work component because its “employees were confused by traditional, disjointed employee benefits, didn’t know who to call and didn’t feel they were getting very good service.”

Sun Life’s return-to-work study

Sun Life’s study tracked the outcomes of nearly 1,000 non-maternity short term disability claims. These claims were divided into two groups — those who received early intervention disability services and those who did not. Available services included:

  • Claimant and physician coaching about return-to-work expectations.
  • Employer education on disability issues.
  • Identification of viable job alternatives, including light duty positions.
  • Job site modifications to accommodate disabled workers.
  • Medical intervention to ensure the employee was receiving appropriate medical care.
  • Three-way coordination and communication between the employer, employee, and physician.
  • Vocational counseling.
Percentage of 830 major companies with formal return-to-work programs
Source: John Hewitt & Associates/Employee Benefit News
Type of disability program YES NO
Workers Comp 53 percent 37 percent
STD/LTD 37 percent 55 percent

Disabled employees in the group that received early intervention worked with their employers and physicians to develop return-to-work plans and set expected return-to-work dates. This date was the earliest recovery date as determined by either the treating physician or the plan’s medical disability advisor. Then the outcomes in both groups were compared, including the date the employee actually returned to work, whether the return was full- or part-time, and if the claim transitioned into the long term disability stage.

The study showed that the early intervention services yielded a high success rate in returning disabled employees to work.
Among the findings:

  • On average, employees receiving early intervention services returned to work 2.7 weeks sooner, saving the employer approximately $810 per claim.
  • 47 percent more employees returned to work during the short term disability stage with early intervention.
  • 33 percent fewer claims extended into the long term disability stage with early intervention.

Services make all the difference

“Usually it isn’t the disability that prevents them from returning to work, but all kinds of extraneous
job issues.”

Sun Life’s findings don’t surprise Cheryl Jensen, the director of disability review services for John Hewitt & Associates Inc., a disability risk management and consulting firm with headquarters in Portland, Maine. Nine times out of 10, she says, disabled workers stay out on disability longer than they have to or don’t return at all due to employment problems rather than their medical problems.

“Usually it isn’t the disability that prevents them from returning to work, but all kinds of extraneous job issues,” Jensen says. “Maybe the company has just been sold, or the worker just got a new boss, or the worker’s duties are changing and the employer hasn’t put any kind of support mechanism in place. If the employer doesn’t recognize that the disabled worker has value and communicate this idea directly to the worker, then the employer risks losing that employee.”

Sun Life concluded that early intervention in short term disability cases can overcome two main barriers:

  • Psychological: The disabled employee hasn’t mentally adjusted to not working and his or her new lifestyle without work.
  • Work: A close relationship still exists between the employer and employee, and everyone remains focused on recovery and return to work. Before long, an employee can quickly become “out of sight, out of mind.”

Real savings

Employers that don’t pay attention to the potential rewards of return-to-work programs may pay a high price, says Sun Life. “Employers who ignore the importance of early intervention risk higher absenteeism, higher staffing costs, and lower productivity.”

All reported savings between 18 percent and 19 percent.

Conversely, employers that implement early intervention programs can reap real savings. According to Sun Life’s study, if a large company has 10,000 employees, that company can expect 600 employees to receive short term disability benefits in an average year. Even if 10 percent, or 60, of these employees receive early intervention services, that can mean $48,000 in annual savings based on a $300 weekly short term disability benefit payment multiplied by the shorter average disability duration of 2.7 weeks.

These findings complement those discovered by Watson-Wyatt Worldwide and the Washington Business Group on Health in their fourth annual survey report for 1999/2000 called “Staying@Work.” The study examined 178 major companies with an average of 13,500 workers and found that those companies that implemented short term disability claim management activities — such as independent medical exams, behavioral health interventions, case management, and transitional return-to-work programs — reported savings between 18 percent and 19 percent.