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Avoid These Mistakes When Addressing Disabilities in the Workplace to Protect Your Employees and Your Business An important step toward helping an employee with a disabling condition is having a good disability management program.

By Tom Foran

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Employees and their talents are vital to the success of any company, so when an employee is affected by a serious health condition, it can create challenging workforce gaps. Furthermore, if an employee's pain or discomfort goes unaddressed, it could manifest into a more serious condition, increasing the strain on the employee and leading to a loss of productivity for the business.

Related: When Is a Leave of Absence an Appropriate ADA Accommodation?

How can this be prevented? An important step toward helping an employee with a disabling condition is having a good disability management program, which includes stay-at-work and return-to-work services. A recent survey conducted by Standard Insurance Company found that disability management and an organization's overall productivity are closely linked. This seems straightforward, but there's a missing piece of the puzzle -- in order for disability management to work, employees need to have easy and consistent access to the resources it provides.

Unfortunately, some assumptions about how employees seek or receive assistance for a health condition can cause even the greatest disability management program to fail. It's important to identify and support employees who are dealing with a health condition, which will help prevent a decrease in productivity while improving the employee experience. By understanding the following assumptions and how to prevent them, you can help set your organization up for success.

Assumption 1: Employees are comfortable approaching their manager for health-related assistance.

Discussing a health condition with a direct supervisor can be uncomfortable. It's a personal conversation that employees may not know how to start in the workplace, or they may be afraid that if they talk about their condition, a supervisor may label them as disabled, needy or costly. The Standard's survey found 53 percent of employees were scared to talk about their health condition with a direct supervisor. Of the employees who broached the topic with a direct supervisor, 49 percent felt they were treated differently in the workplace after sharing health-related information.

Related: Hiring Employees With Disabilities

It's important for supervisors to understand that just because an employee needs assistance, it doesn't mean he or she will reach out for help. Companies can do more to foster an inclusive and collaborative environment around disability management.

Regardless of whether your leadership team is comprised of four or 40 people, all should receive training on how to identify an employee in need and how to navigate the disability process. Some disability insurance carriers have experts who are well-versed in identifying employees in need, initiating health-related conversations and outlining when is an appropriate time for a manager to communicate with an employee during a disability leave.

Assumption 2: Employees receive the same support regardless of whom they speak to.

In The Standard's survey, employees who worked with an HR manager took 18 fewer days of disability leave than those who worked with a direct supervisor. This is likely because HR managers often have deeper knowledge of a company's employee resources and available support, and generally deal with these issues more often than a typical manager. Whether employees are seeking assistance from an HR manager or direct supervisor, inconsistency in support could create confusion among employees and negatively affect their overall workplace experience.

Related: This Program Wants to Help People With Disabilities Become Entrepreneurs

Your leadership team should be on the same page and up to date on employee resources. Not only can consistency help create a better workplace experience, it also can benefit your bottom line. If employees receive appropriate accommodations at the right time, such as stay-at-work or return-to-work assistance, it could help employees from going out on a disability leave altogether or help shorten the disability duration time. Keeping employees at work, or helping them return to work faster, can save your company time and money that otherwise may have been spent hiring temporary workers or paying current employees overtime.

Assumption 3: Accommodations for employees with health conditions are expensive and burdensome.

Accommodations, such as ergonomic equipment or schedule modifications, can help employees with health conditions stay productive and comfortable at work. But, budget is often a main concern for business owners when they hear the word "accommodation." Fortunately, not all accommodations are costly. According to the Job Accommodation Network, 59 percent of accommodations cost absolutely nothing, while the rest typically cost only $500.

Accommodations should be tailored to each employee's situation. Whether it's offering a flexible work schedule for doctors' appointments, providing temporary or modified job responsibilities or workstation modifications, simple accommodations can go a long way. Ninety-three percent of employees surveyed by The Standard felt more productive after receiving accommodations.

Related: Migraines Sap Way More Productivity Than You'd Think

But, don't worry; evaluating what could best fit your employees' needs doesn't have to fall solely on your shoulders. Many disability insurance carriers have vocational experts who can help find and source accommodations and help check back to ensure that the modifications are helping an employee long-term.

Ensure your organization and its leaders don't inadvertently fall into the issues these assumptions bring with them. In doing so, along with fostering an inclusive workplace that can support employees with a health condition, you can improve your workforce's overall health and productivity.

Related Video: Unhealthy Employees Could Be Decreasing Your Company's Productivity

Tom Foran

VP of Underwriting and Product Development at The Standard

Tom Foran is the vice president of underwriting and product development for The Standard and has worked in the insurance industry for more than 30 years. He is responsible for designing and pricing products and services that maximize an employer’s human capital.

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