Supporting Employees In The Return To Work

Supporting Employees in the return to work | GroupHEALTHWith the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a clear indication that mental health impacts are a severe consequence of the lockdowns and restrictions in place. This includes anxiety and worry associated with catching COVID-19, the stress of caring for family members while working from home, as well as loneliness and isolation. Organizations must be prepared to face an influx of mental health challenges such as these spilling over into the workplace through increased disability cases and short-term and long-term leaves.

It is important to engage with employees early on to offer resources and support to help mitigate the negative impact and to help the employer retain their most valuable resources – their people.

Ask the Right Questions

It is crucial to ask the right questions at the beginning of an absence to identify and provide the earliest possible support to employees dealing with mental health challenges and other medical complexities.

One example of this is an innovative pilot project that Disability Management Institute (DMI) has partnered on with Claim Lab LLC. It is designed to support employees on leave and facilitate their safe and timely return to work through a brief email questionnaire sent to both the absent employee and their direct manager.

The information in this customized questionnaire provides a holistic understanding of a workplace absence and assists in identifying resources and return-to-work planning. These questions revolve around physical capabilities, mental health, and motivation. The questionnaire goes into specifics about how they are coping with their daily activities (such as personal grooming, sleep, etc.), time management, focus, and questions regarding the employee’s perception about what would help them return to work.

Employers are asked to provide information about job duties, performance and opportunities for the employee to return to work. Interviewing both the direct manager and the employee can help to highlight any gaps regarding the work environment, job duties, etc. that may be missed. It is highly suggested that a credited third-party institute – such as a disability management provider – asks these questions rather than an employer, in order to adhere to any privacy restrictions.

Use Responses to Customize Support

The questionnaire responses show how the employee and the employer score across several matrices: physical capabilities, mental health and motivation. These scores are used to customize interactions between the employee and employer, and they provide targeted support to maximize the employee’s recovery and return to function.

For example, if an employee indicates that they don’t perceive their treatment plan to be helpful, the conversation could focus on the details of the treatment plan, how long they have been following it, if they shared their concerns with their doctor, etc. The response becomes customized to what the employee needs. Having these kinds of personalized interactions helps employees to feel more supported – they aren’t just getting generic resources but also tools that are specific to them and their unique situations.

Develop Actionable Strategies

Through engagement with the employee, the employer is able to identify patterns early on. The employer can work with their disability management service to develop comprehensive case management strategies such as regular follow-ups with the employee, goal setting, ensuring compliance with treatment recommendations, maximizing the use of support resources (benefit plans, family, friends, mindfulness, etc.), and exploring modified or gradual return-to-work options.

These strategies help to ensure that the individuals are supported and that they can achieve the best possible outcomes such as early return to work, gradual/modified work, shorter leave and greater well-being. Employers can benefit from reducing recurrent absences and overtime costs, increasing the retention of skilled employees, and reducing the burden on other staff members to cover for employee absences.

Providing counselling services, offering referrals to community-based resources, encouraging utilization of the Employee & Family Assistance Program, and providing access to online workshops and webinars are just some of the strategies employers can use to get ahead of these concerning trends.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be felt amongst organizations and communities for years to come, but by providing support and resources early on, employers can alleviate some of that stress, help employees who may be “suffering in silence,” and create a path to a safe and timely recovery.

Lisa Paterson is the Vancouver-based Director, Pre-Claim Intervention of the Disability Management Institute.

Disability Management Institute ( has been providing disability management solutions to more than 5,000 clients across Canada since 2002. With offices in Surrey, B.C. and Barrie, Ont., DMI provides clients with the following value-added services: non-occupational claims management; WCB/WSIB claims management; sick leave or STD claims review; LTD, Life, and CI adjudication; rehabilitation services; and return-to-work planning.

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