Early Intervention Can Help Employees Get Back to Work

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Jeff Smith
Photo of two women shaking hands at a desk

It’s no secret that early intervention is the key to helping employees avoid a disability claim or get back to work quickly and safely. So why don’t more people do something about it? Let’s explore how to create a positive experience for employees and employers — and support productivity.

What’s at risk? The likelihood of a person returning to full employment drops significantly after six months of absence. After a year, the odds of ever returning are down to almost zero percent.1

But many injured or ill workers could remain in their jobs or the workforce if they received timely, coordinated, effective support and services as part of a stay-at-work or return-to-work program.

What is Early Intervention?

“Early” depends in part on the type of disability an employee has, but initial and ongoing communication is the key. A research report concludes that the evidence consistently favors early over late intervention.2

The best time to intervene? Offer support as soon as possible, when employees still feel attached to their employer and miss their friends at work, as well as their regular paychecks.2 For employers, early intervention can help reduce lost productivity and the costs of finding and training someone else to do the job.

intervention noun

  • getting involved in a difficult situation to improve it or prevent it from getting worse, or an occasion when this is done.
  • action taken to improve a situation, especially a medical disorder.
  • Ideal Approach — The insurer’s disability team reviews all claim reports upfront, even before the claim gets approved. When appropriate, a claim manager starts conversations with employees right away to talk about the services and options that can help them get back to work.

    We find that this type of proactive support often creates a halo effect. The SAW/RTW services we provide have a positive impact not only on individuals, but also on coworkers who get a favorable impression of their employer.
  • Wrong Approach — The claim reviewer focuses on a doctor’s report that says an employee can return to work in six months. Then waits five-and-a-half months before calling to check in with the employee. Chances are, the employee doesn’t have a plan to return to work — and doesn’t feel ready.

Early and consistent communication reminds employees that there’s light at the end of the tunnel — and a helping hand.

The Danger Zone — A Disability Mindset

The longer employees are on disability leave, the greater the risk of developing a “disability mindset.” This can happen when ill or injured employees become focused on their disabilities instead of capabilities.3

Without regular communication and support, employees may think their employer has written them off as permanently disabled. The next step may be feeling hopeless about returning to the workforce.

Another example of a disability mindset? Sometimes, if they don't have any disability insurance provided to them, employees will need to go through the Social Security Disability Insurance process. That tends to be a long, involved effort — averaging two to three years to get a final decision.4 By that time, employees have likely lost the momentum and motivation to return to work.

A compassionate employer and early SAW/RTW support can help employees avoid this negative pattern. The goal is to help them maintain a positive attitude about being part of the workforce again.3

The Success Zone — Offer a Creative, Holistic Approach

Considerable success can be achieved by providing support to workers with musculoskeletal conditions (particularly lower back pain), mental health conditions, and other chronic conditions for which adherence to treatment is critical.”

Worker motivation appears to be the most important determinant of success.”

Source: Mathematica Policy Research2

What’s the most important factor in successful return to work? Worker motivation — regardless of age and gender.2

One way to support that motivation is to offer a holistic, compassionate approach. Treating the “whole person” can help uncover and address all the factors that can affect an individual’s ability to work.

A creative approach to accommodations can also make a big difference. The right accommodations or ergonomic equipment may allow someone with restrictions to work at 100%. Another option might be a gradual return to full duty.

What if an employer isn’t prepared to accommodate light duty? A disability or vocational specialist could reach out to the employee, partnering with the HR team and medical provider to suggest resources and innovative options.

The many success stories profiled on this blog showcase the value of intervening early and offering first-person support. For example, this program delivered a 91% stay-at-work success rate. And this case study demonstrates how a tailored solution reduced short term disability durations and costs.

Of course, there’s not always a solution that works for both the employer and an individual employee. But early support can ensure employees have a more positive experience and possibilities to explore.

Manager Training — Facilitating Stay at Work

With the right training, supervisors and managers can learn to identify people that need intervention. By recognizing employees’ challenges early, managers can connect them with stay-at-work support. Well-trained managers can also foster a culture that supports behavioral health and wellness.

A Win-Win — Improving Productivity and Employees’ Futures

Everyone wins when employees get help to stay at or return to work earlier. Employers don’t have to worry about — or experience — as much lost productivity. Disability costs go down. And employees can return to productive lives and full-time earnings.

We believe that’s in part because of early outreach. These results highlight the benefits of contacting people when they’re still invested in their jobs and are eager to stay at, or return to, work.

Interested in more results and strategies? Keep reading our blog or contact us anytime.