Practicing Successful Absence Management

For many employers, a good program is something often overlooked…and misunderstood

by Michael Estep

Mr. Estep is 2nd Vice President Group Life, Disability and Supplemental Health Product Development at Guardian Life. Connect with him by e-mail:

An effective absence management program can help ease administrative burdens, ensure compliance with complex state and federal leave laws, and increase productivity, ultimately producing a positive impact on a company’s bottom line.

Yet, management of this important function is often overlooked or misunderstood. Brokers and advisors who understand the fundamentals of sound absence management can provide valuable guidance to their clients. A good starting point in determining attributes that make for a successful absence management program is the 2015 Guardian Absence Management Activity IndexSM and Study.

The study looks at how advanced employers are in their adoption of program elements that correlate with success in reducing absenteeism. Below are some of the key findings and statistics from the study.

A Four-Step Approach to a Successful Program

For employers looking to establish an absence management program, or for more experienced employers seeking to enhance their existing programs, there are four major steps associated with success:

  1. Setting a solid philosophy. A company’s early decisions are often based on its underlying philosophy. The top two priorities should be returning employees to safe and productive work, and encouraging overall health and wellness.
  2. Taking key foundational steps. Getting buy-in from senior management and following a clear communications strategy are essential.
  3. Developing an effective model. Key predictors of success are using the same outside resource for short-term disability (STD) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) administration, and making health management referrals.
  4. Carefully measuring success. It’s important to determine how program effectiveness will be assessed. Nearly half (48 percent) of all employers reported employee engagement to be the most critical measure of success.

Outsourcing Options for Managing Absenteeism

While managing absenteeism remains a challenge for many employers, certain tasks have become less burdensome due to increased access to expert advice, third-party technology and tools, and more outsourcing options. This reduces some of the regulatory, decision-making, and reporting challenges, particularly when applying Americans with Disability Act Amendment Act regulations and coordinating a variety of absence types.

While managing absenteeism remains a challenge for many employers, certain tasks have become less burdensome due to increased access to expert advice, third-party technology and tools, and more outsourcing options

More resources are also now available to smaller organizations to help manage absenteeism. For example, some insurance carriers now provide services to companies with as little as 50 employees that traditionally were only available to larger companies.

Absence Management Best Practices

Although 81 percent of employers say they are making some effort to manage absences, nearly half have not achieved more than two of the following positive outcomes: enhancing productivity; improving employee experience; reducing lost time; decreasing overall absenteeism; increasing return-to-work rates; and reducing direct costs.

Employers can get more out of their efforts by focusing on the following activities, which are the strongest predictors of success:

  • A full return-to-work program. A surprising number of companies do not have a written return-to-work policy, yet this is paramount as a foundational step.
  • Access to usage/claims reports. Detailed reporting for disability and FMLA can help employers understand why people are out and how quickly they resume work.
  • Referrals to health management programs. The ability to provide employee assistance programs (EAP), disease management or wellness programs helps get employees back to work more quickly.
  • A central portal for reporting. Whether it’s for FMLA, STD or paid time off, it’s important to have a central place where employees report their absences. A single resource makes it easier for employees and means more reliable data and more accurate reporting.
  • Using the same STD resource for FMLA and additional benefit programs. Integration improves outcomes, enhances the employee experience and ensures consistency, while reducing administrative costs and inefficiencies.

Getting Started in Absence Management

Reducing absenteeism and its effects are among the most significant challenges facing employers today. With recent marketplace advances in technology, reporting and expertise, there are numerous options for employers to pursue. Employers who are just getting started can follow a series of prescriptive steps to establish their programs and continually improve them over time.

Brokers, agents and consultants, as part of their fiduciary responsibilities, can help bring attention to the importance of absence management to their clients and refer them to available resources that can set them up for success. ♦