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Scaling the Walls


Yes, there are obstacles to absence management, but many shrink when examined closely.


Scaling the walls

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Choose article section... Data required Fear of physicians Money and what it buys Privacy issues Employee reactions

By Annmarie Geddes Lipold

Yes, there are obstacles to absence management, but many shrink when examined closely.

Employers who want to put an absence management program into place face a number of barriers, but recent research indicates these obstacles can be overcome.

What's more, employers who had cleared the hurdles found the results of integrating benefits far outweigh the barriers identified in the planning stages, according to Overcoming The Challenges, a report issued last year by the Integrated Benefits Institute, based in San Francisco. "Perhaps the most striking result of this analysis is the willingness of interested employers to ascribe a much higher importance to advantages than they do to impediments," the report said.

Data required

The single biggest barrier to integrating benefits is lack of information on employee absences, says IBI General Counsel William Molmen. About half of the 350 employers who were integrating benefits or planning to do so in IBI's Turning To Benefit Integration survey, released May 1999, considered data limitations to be an "important" or "very important" barrier. The main limitations in the 1999 survey were lack of internal data needed to justify a change and incompatible, unlinked data systems.

A survey released last year by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, the fifth in an annual series, supports those findings. Sixty-one percent of the 106 employers in Wyatt's Staying@Work: Improving Workforce Productivity report cited data limitations. "Moving out of the status quo" is always a barrier and not having the data necessary to justify a new program makes that change more difficult, notes Veronica Hellwig, co-author of the study.

Experts generally agree that few employers are collecting the information they need to see how absences are hampering productivity. If they are collecting information, it is often in a haphazard manner, with bits of data isolated in different departments and computer systems. Hellwig maintains, however, that not having the computer systems in place should not be a deterrent. Many employers, in fact, have begun to integrate benefits despite system challenges or lack of data.

For example, top management at Avery Dennison decided to give absence management a try because of the easier benefit administration promised by a paperless claim system. They also liked the idea that the Pasadena, Calif.-based company's 17,000 employees would need only one phone number to call for all inquiries and claims, says Helen C. Chaves, corporate director of health services and disability management. Assembling a solid data system was part of the company's absence management implementation plan.

Fear of physicians

Lack of cooperation from doctors tied data limitations as an obstacle to integrating benefits in the Wyatt survey, but is the problem real?

"The barrier is the perception that the doctors are difficult to get along with," suggests Elizabeth Vines Bolt, RN, MS, manager of medical and disability for the 89,000 employees of Dallas-based Halliburton Co.

The energy services company has found that treating doctors as partners in the return-to-work process encourages cooperation, says Bolt. For instance, Halliburton routinely tells doctors of injured workers' job requirements so that possibilities for transitional work can be found.

Money and what it buys

In IBI's 1999 research, 42 percent of the employers interested in integrating benefits or doing so mentioned lack of capital as an "important" or "very important" barrier, while 45 percent cited lack of proven or appropriate products. "There are more proven products, certainly, than there were two years ago," Molmen said of the changing environment, and many programs are developing proven results. This might explain why only 6 percent of the employers in the Wyatt study, conducted a year later, cited lack of suitable insurance products as a concern.

Privacy issues

Employee privacy concerns were cited by over a third of the respondents to both the Wyatt and IBI studies. That barrier can be addressed by using an outside vendor for medical case management, which preserves confidentiality, says Hellwig, adding that the employer does not need a diagnosis but rather the knowledge of what the employee physically can and cannot do.

Halliburton, which has been integrating workers' compensation, short-term disability and long-term disability for 10 years, uses its employee assistance program to help protect employee confidentiality, Bolt reports. Personal disability becomes a family issue, she explains, so the EAP can talk to employees about the financial and caregiver issues that arise. The company also administers the disability portion of FMLA through its integrated program.

Employee reactions

Employee satisfaction was an impediment to 41 percent of current or likely benefit integrators in the IBI study, while 30 percent of Wyatt's respondents cited employee/labor union resistance as a significant barrier for integrating benefits.

"The feeling is, immediately when you put in absence management, employees might think benefits are being reduced," says Wyatt's Hellwig. Her advice: Managers have to be ready and able to explain that's not the case.



A freelance writer based in Arlington, Va., Annmarie Geddes Lipold has been reporting on workers' compensation, disability and employee health issues for the past decade. She is a contributing editor to Business & Health.

Resource Links:

The Hartfordwww.thehartford.com

The Integrated Benefits Institutewww.ibiweb.org

The Washington Business Group on Healthwww.wbgh.org


Annmarie Geddes Lipold. Scaling the Walls. Business and Health Time is Money: The Mechanics of Absence Management;21.

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