We can’t escape that absenteeism and disability management represent an increasingly onerous and costly challenge for all organizations.  The demands of absenteeism and disability management on managers and human resources are growing.  The incidence of disability and rates of absenteeism in workplaces is escalating.  The frustration of managing this challenge is taking a toll on organizations, both in terms of financial cost and the burden on those responsible for managing these issues.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel of absenteeism and disability management?  The answer is yes where organizations recognize, acknowledge and deal with the “Elephants In The Room” of disability management.  The answer is yes if we acknowledge and respond to all components of the elephant of disability and absenteeism management.
Why is disability and absenteeism management an elephant in the room?
There are multiple features to the management challenge attending disability and absenteeism.   Many organizations have not recognized or dealt with all features.  Key features:

  • The current Canadian context of disability and absenteeism;
  • Presenteeism;
  • The impact of the duty to accommodate;
  • The reality and impact of the medical documentation challenge;
  • The Pros at abuse;
  • The Organizational culture around disability and absence.

Let’s continue the elephant theme discussion.  It is instructive as to the where and why of our inability to effectively address the absenteeism and disability challenge.  Who recalls the parable about six blind men and an elephant?  Each blind man was asked to describe what an elephant looks like by touching a different part.  Each blind man came to a different conclusion.  The parable illustrates the problem with the approach of many organizations to absenteeism and disability management.  To properly identify and respond to the complete beast of absenteeism and disability management requires an understanding and acceptance of the various parts.  Frequently organizations, in policies and management of absenteeism, limit the focus to one or more of the features rather than the whole.  Successful approaches to disability and absenteeism management demand addressing all aspects of the challenge to harmonize the conflicting elements and interests.  A successful and harmonized approach to disability and absenteeism management deliver the following benefits:

  • A resolution or reduction of  the factors that contribute to disability issues and absenteeism;
  • A reduction in the incidence and/or duration of absences;
  • A reduction in the incidence and/or duration of disability issues;
  • A reduction in the costs of disability and absenteeism;
  • A reduction in the management time consumed;
  • Absolute costs savings to the organization in terms of absenteeism, health care costs, lost productivity;
  • Increased productivity.

Every organization has an interest in accomplishing the foregoing.  The question is how do you get there?  The answer is by acknowledging and dealing with all aspects of the challenge, by confronting the elephants in your room.
Confronting the Elephants in the Room
1.   Acknowledge the Current Context of Canadian Disability and Absenteeism

To identify the resources and strategies required to effectively respond to disability and absenteeism issues in workplaces requires confronting the realities of Canadian disability and absenteeism.

These realities include:

  • Rates of absenteeism are rising in Canada;
  • The factors contributing to this rise include;
    • Increasing incidents of stress;
    • Aging workforce;
    • Increasing presence of women in the workplace;
    • More generous sick and family leave benefits;
  • Recent statistics confirm a rise in absenteeism rates from 8.1 days per year (1999) to 9.8 days per year (2009) (Source: Statistics Canada – Work Absence Rates: 2009)

A recent Statistics Canada Study disclosed that Aging impacts attendance (6.5 days per for under 20 vs. 12.5 days per year for over 50).  Given the aging workforce, such statistics signal continuing increases in absenteeism rates.
A significant contributor to rising disability and absenteeism rates is escalating work-life conflict.  A study of work-life conflict of Canadian employees disclosed alarming facts:

  • Role overload experienced by 58% of Canadian employees;
  • Work-Family interference experienced by 30% of Canadian employees;
  • Caregiver strain experience by 25% of Canadian employees.
  • 35% of employees reported high job stress;
  • Highly stressed workers experienced an absenteeism rate 3 times that of others.

The significance of the current context of Canadian disability and absenteeism

There is no escaping the fact that the historical approaches to attendance management; rooted in arbitrary, standardized attendance expectations for all workplace participants; standards disconnected from the experience and demographics of the current and future Canadian workforce,  are ineffective in meeting an organizations needs and interests in terms of disability and absenteeism management.  The effectiveness of these historical strategies is further limited by the impact of the duty to accommodate.  In the current and future context of disability and absenteeism in Canada, organizations have a need to develop strategies and dedicate resources to resolving or minimizing the causes of disability and absenteeism.  Investing in healthy workplaces is a necessary component of an effective disability and absenteeism management program.
2.  Presenteeism

Did you know it costs more than Absenteeism?

A minority of organizations are talking about the beast of presenteeism, let alone measuring it, or allocating resources and strategies to alleviate it.  Recent studies disclose that a small percentage of employers are measuring or analyzing absenteeism; never mind presenteeism.  “Presenteeism” is the cost to the organization of lost productivity, when physical and mental health issues interfere with the workers ability to perform to his/her full potential.
Consider significant costs of Presenteeism;

  • It costs 7.5 to 10 times the cost of absenteeism;
  • Three quarters of the total cost of health related workplace issues attend the cost of “Presenteeism”;
  •   “Presenteeism” costs Canadian businesses 15 to 25 billion dollars per year (Source: Presenteeism – A Proactive Solution for Organizations)

Can Canadian employers afford not to allocate resources to reduce “Presenteeism” in their workplaces?

The cost of lost productivity where employees participate in the workplace with persisting health issues, (physical or mental) that impair their performance, far exceeds the cost of absenteeism.  The numbers attending “Presenteeism” highlight an employer’s interest in directing resources to improve and support the health of employees.  The reports of employers who have directed resources to Wellness Initiatives to support employee health disclose a dramatic impact on absenteeism rates and retention rates.  (i.e. City of Toronto – Employee participants – Metro-Fit experience 3.5 fewer days off, dramatic increase in retention rates experienced by most organizations with wellness initiatives.)
3.  The Duty to Accommodate

A meaningful integration of the Duty to Accommodate into the organizations culture and policies is critical to effective disability and absenteeism management.  The development and implementation of effective strategies and approaches to respond to disability and absenteeism management requires an understanding and acceptance of the impact of the duty to accommodate on the management of these issues.
The recurring evidence of successful challenges to employer’s attendance management policies, and/or terminations of employees in connection with absenteeism issues highlights two persisting problems: (i) an inadequate understanding of the impact of the duty to accommodate on the management of disability and absenteeism issues;  (ii) managers and human resources without the tools, skills and time to deal with the accommodation demands of attendance management..
An effective and meaningful integration of the duty to accommodate into policies; strategies, organizational culture and the management of disability and absenteeism issues is critical to effective management of the issues.
4.  Meeting the Medical Input/Documentation Challenge

A persisting challenge for organizations and the individuals responsible for managing disability and absenteeism issues centers around securing timely and effective medical input from employees and medical advisors.  Access to such input is critical to an organization’s ability to respond to its’ business interests and legal compliance interests in managing disability issues.
There isn’t an employer without at least one horror story regarding the lack of cooperation from an employee and/or physician in connection with the medical documentation challenge.  There isn’t a manager or HR professional who hasn’t been frustrated with the time and resources of managing the medical documentation challenge.
Organizations have an interest and need to direct resources to equip managers and human resource supports with the time, tools and knowledge to effectively manage the medical input aspects of disability management.
5.  The Pros at Abuse

We whisper about this aspect of absenteeism and disability management.  This is understandable given that the majority of disability issues representing the challenge and costs for the organization are legitimate and escalating for the reasons discussed earlier.  Notwithstanding this fact, anyone with experience in dealing with disability and absenteeism management issues recognizes that there are the pros at abuse; fortunately a small minority.
Regrettably the pros at abuse can drain an organization in terms of resources and energy given the management time required to effectively manage abuse.  At times the pros at abuse are better schooled and tooled on the issues relevant to disability and absenteeism than the management struggling to manage absenteeism.
Organizations have an interest in ensuring that their managers and human resources supports are equipped with the knowledge and resources required to effectively manage abuse.  Without such knowledge and tools they face the risk of ineffective management of abuse and/or the risk of being unable to distinguish between abuse and legitimate needs.  The recent “Greater Toronto Airport Authority vs. Public Service Alliance of Canada, Local 0004” award of Owen Shine highlights that the liability risk confronting an employer who misjudges an abuse situation can be significant (award of $500,000.00 in damages for employers bad faith in terminating a unionized employee for suspected abuse of sick leave).
Taming the Beast of Disability and Absenteeism Management

What can we learn from confronting the parts forming the challenge of managing absenteeism and disability issues?

  1. That unavoidably disability and absenteeism will continue to be a significant presence in Canadian workplaces;
  2. That the incidence of disability and absenteeism rates is growing in Canada;
  3. That the incidence of disability and absenteeism rates will continue to grow unless organizations direct resources and strategies to resolve or reduce the causes;
  4. That the historical approaches to disability and attendance management; rooted primarily in holding employees accountable to arbitrary uniform standards of attendance and managing individual absences is inadequate to meet the operational and financial interests of the employer in connection with attendance and productivity;
  5. That a failure to effectively integrate the duty to accommodate into policies and programs will expose the organization to the risk of serious liabilities in connection with management’s response to absenteeism or disability;
  6. That the costs of lost productivity associated with employees who continue to work when experiencing mental or physical health issues can be three times the cost of absenteeism.

The critical message is that organizations have a significant business interest in developing and committing to a range of initiatives and strategies, and to a culture that will better position management and the organization to respond to absenteeism and disability issues in a manner more responsive to the organization’s business interest.
Approaches, Strategies and Initiatives that Work!

The following is not meant to be exhaustive.  It represents a starting point for organizations to consider:

  1. Analyzing the incidents and causes of disability and absenteeism in your organization (supports the effective identification of initiatives to be prioritized);
  2. Identify and commit to initiatives to reduce the causes of absenteeism (wellness initiatives to increase employee health; flexible work arrangements and supports to reduce work-life conflict);
  3. Develop attendance management policies and programs consistent with the practical and legal realities of Canadian disability and absenteeism;
  4. Effectively integrate the duty to accommodate into the organization’s culture, relevant policies and programs;
  5. Invest in the knowledge, resources and tools that managers and human resources require for effective management of disability and absenteeism issues;
  6. Develop a corporate culture that encourages all parties at the disability and absenteeism management table to work cooperatively and effectively to respond to the respective interests (i.e. employee with health issue, physicians, managers and supervisors, human resources).

Employer organizations can “Tame the Beast”.  They can manage the challenge of absenteeism and disability management in a manner more responsive to the organization’s business interests.  The success stories of a minority of employers who have experimented with a broader range of strategies are circulating.  These employers are becoming employers of choice.  To join this rank demands that we begin with an accurate understanding of the Canadian disability and absenteeism context; that we deal with the elephants in the room and consider all aspects of the disability and absenteeism challenge when developing strategies to meet the challenge.

About the Author

Barbara G. Humphrey, B.A., LL.B represents employers in a broad range of employment-related matters including human rights, conflict resolution, employment standards, labour relations and wrongful dismissal.  Ms. Humphrey’s services are regularly retained in connection with conducting independent investigations, mediation initiatives, advisory support and internal audits to determine and resolve human rights, workplace environment and workplace conflict issues within public and private sector organizations. She is recognized for her expertise in Human Rights, Harassment Investigations and Disability & Absenteeism Management. Barbara shares her expertise regularly as a frequent speaker at conferences across the country; through papers and articles regularly published and through the development and delivery of a broad range of employment training programs delivered in public and private sector workplaces.  In 2003 Barbara was recognized by Lexpert as one of the top 25 women lawyers in Canada.  She is recognized as a leading human rights and equality rights practitioner by Lexpert.


©Barbara G. Humphrey Professional Corporation Reproduced with the permission of Barbara G. Humphrey (http://www.barbarahumphreylaw.com/)