5 Absence and Disability Trends to Watch in 2019

By: | January 18, 2019

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

Each year, I write about the trends I see coming for the absence and disability management field for the upcoming year. This year’s forecast complements the trends I highlighted for 2018.

We continue to see paid family and sick leave regulation at the state and municipal levels, along with more high-profile announcements of private employer programs. Mental and behavioral health continues to gain attention as employers recognize the breadth of employee stress and effective ways to address it. Professional development and training supervisors on important laws to increase compliance with federal regulations continues to move up the priority list for employers.

Here are the trends I predict we’ll continue to see in 2019.

1) Employee Engagement

There has been a lot of discussion on this topic. It’s not enough for employees to be at work; they need to be engaged in a way that encourages commitment and productivity. However, employee engagement is now viewed as a two-way street. Employers need to invest in education and professional development to promote engagement.

We will continue to see employers provide employees with opportunities to “up-skill” in both data and people skills. In addition, professional development will continue to increase its focus on measurable return on investment, and that’s never been easy to demonstrate.

Leave, especially paid family leave, will play an increasingly large role in fostering engagement. We’ll continue to see those programs expand at the private, local and state levels, if not at the federal level.

But engagement means even more than providing sufficient leave. Employers are implementing on-site day care, financial wellness and other initiatives to help employees focus on work and reduce stress. These types of programs increase productivity, and they can also generate loyalty and commitment — both critical components to retention in a tight labor market.

2) Supervisor Training

The U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission say that most enforcement actions could be avoided through basic supervisor training. FMLA, ADA, anti-discrimination and sexual harassment liability is greatly reduced when supervisors and managers understand the relevant laws and the most common types of communication pitfalls to avoid.

Some states like California mandate certain types of compliance training. We’ll see more of that in 2019, along with greater voluntary employer training efforts. In addition, employer associations, including DMEC, will make inexpensive and convenient training available. Training supervisors and managers will make for fairer and more professional workplaces. Over time, it should also reduce enforcement actions, lawsuits and the costs they impose on employers and employees alike.

3) Workplace Diversity and Inclusion

A tight labor market means employers will also continue to hire employees from diverse backgrounds with varied skills and abilities.

What employers are discovering is that diversity encourages employees to look at problems and solutions in new ways. It spurs innovation and creates ways to better understand potential markets. Both of those components are often key to competitive success in many of today’s business sectors.

We’ll also continue to see more diverse workplaces and a deepened understanding about the role different perspectives play in driving innovation and competitiveness. While we still have a long way to go before there is genuine and full inclusion, the realities of global markets will continue to provide a strong motivation to move in that direction.

What employers are discovering is that diversity encourages employees to look at problems and solutions in new ways. It spurs innovation and creates ways to better understand potential markets.

4) Automation

There’s a lively debate about the role automation plays in job creation and destruction. The evidence suggests today’s automation has the same impact it always has — on balance, it changes the types of work employees perform; it doesn’t eliminate it. As more routine tasks and even some forms of judgment are automated, employees need to bring greater skill and more advanced analysis and creativity to their work.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are driving this point in a way no technological innovation has since the personal computer.

Absence and disability professionals are learning to use AI and big data to interpret output in a way that drives business results. At the same time, automation means a greater emphasis on “people skills.”

While AI can pinpoint absence trends and drivers, it can’t interact with employees in a way that makes them feel valued. Only humans understand the role such interaction plays in enhancing commitment and reducing risk. While this comes naturally to many people, it is also a learned skilled that can be honed. And AI has not cracked the problem, but it’s more important than ever as employers seek productivity gains in a tight labor market.

5) Marijuana

The U.S. has not seen such a potentially large shift in social, legal and workplace practices involving a drug since alcohol prohibition was ended in 1933. While marijuana is nowhere near as ubiquitous as alcohol, its increased legalization/decriminalization for both medical and recreational purposes presents employers, courts and others with a host of new challenges.

Medical marijuana presents the more complex challenge. First, it’s more widespread; it is legal in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Second, because prescribed (and even recreational) drug use is often still illegal when employees are at work, the federal law isn’t in sync with states that have legalized the drug. This means that employees can’t use prescribed drugs on employer property.

Employers will continue to try to sort out the implications of all this when it comes to prescribed marijuana. It will inevitably involve divergent viewpoints, legal actions and new risk management strategies.

Recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia. While not easy, the challenges employers face with that reality are probably less complex that those presented by medical marijuana. Recreational marijuana primarily boils down to impairment. There is not currently a test to determine impairment from Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive agent in cannabinoids, such as there is for alcohol impairment. This increases the conundrum for employers and their workforces.

The absence and disability management profession is more exciting than ever. Continued economic growth and a shrinking pool of available employer talent, along with other social and economic factors, will make take it to even more interesting and diverse places in 2019. &

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