5 Absence and Disability Trends You Better Keep on Your Radar Well into 2021

By: | December 3, 2020

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 provide the absence and disability management trends I see shaping the workplace for the coming year.

The 2020 trends I identified are still in play — even if significantly changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let us look at them in the rearview mirror and see how this history-altering pandemic impacted the absence and disability landscape in ways I could not have imagined.

1) ADA Compliance

Over the years, employers have spent years developing processes and procedures to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), especially around the “interactive process.”

With COVID-19, the importance of those processes became even more significant as absence and disability professionals’ ADA workloads increased by 200-300% in some cases.

With many unknown factors about this virus, guidance from the CDC, FDA and other public health authorities continues to change rapidly. The best way — really the only way — to make certain an employer is in compliance with the ADA is to be fully aware of the latest guidance on what one can and cannot ask and engage in a thorough interactive process with each employee.

2) Technology

I wrote that “the march of AI, automation and mobility shows no signs of slowing in 2020.” While all of those continued to grow, mobility has taken a leap few could have predicted.

About one-third of Americans are now working remotely. While this is usually at home, that isn’t always the case But wherever they are working, it looks like it could be permanent.

Several large technology companies, including Microsoft, Google and Twitter, have announced employees can work from home for the foreseeable future. Other companies have indicated employees will likely work from home at least part of the time.

The impact of hundreds of thousands of employees working from home or other places is compounded by the wide and deep adoption of virtual meetings and conferences. Convention centers, hotels, restaurants and airline have all been impacted by the effective shutdown of professional business travel. Even how employees access health care has been transformed with more seeking telehealth options.

All of this raises a fundamental question for absence and disability professionals: When work is what you do rather than where you go, what does absence really mean? I have some ideas about that; stay tuned for my 2021 trends article for more.

3) Mental Health

If there still existed employers who thought employee mental health was not a priority, 2020 changed that thinking and the technology around access to care.

Employees are facing more mental health challenges than ever. Changed home life patterns, fear of job loss, continuous news about the pandemic, a divisive political culture and other stresses have resulted in an emotional boiling point.

Far too often, employees are turning to alcohol, drugs and unhealthy eating to cope. These behaviors can then have negative impacts on mental and physical health.

The good news is — in the case of mental health services — the use of Zoom and smartphone apps have been just what the doctor ordered. These technologies can be an important way for employees to move through the stigma many still feel about seeking assistance for mental and behavior health challenges.

More than ever, employees are directly accessing mental health services and reaching out to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) through impersonal avenues. According to a National Safety Council presentation in October, EAP service use is up 33%.

Employees know these are difficult times. They are seeking help to prevent mental health issues and address them when they occur. Technology can add to stress, but at least for now, it is playing an important role in helping employees reduce it and other challenges.

4) Marijuana

I thought 2020 could be the year when employers could use a test — like that of an alcohol breathalyzer — that would determine marijuana impairment, certainly making safety and compliance a lot easier. Employers will have to wait for this rumored test.

But that does not mean the country’s widening embrace of marijuana — and its workplace implications — did not continue in 2020.

In November, New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota voted to legalize recreational marijuana, joining 11 other states plus the District of Columbia (D.C.), which have already done so. And in a sign of how much views about this drug have changed, Mississippi voted overwhelmingly to legalize it for medical use. One in three Americans now live in states where marijuana is legal for anyone at least 21 years old.

It is clear that the decriminalization/legalization trend is not stopping at marijuana. Psychedelic mushrooms were decriminalized in D.C. and Oregon, where they can be used for mental health treatment. Several cities previously passed similar measures, including Oakland and Santa Cruz in California, as well as Denver.

Oregon went much further. Last month, its voters passed a measure to decriminalize all controlled substances. Residents will no longer face arrests or prison sentences for carrying small amounts of drugs like cocaine, heroin, oxycontin and methamphetamine. The winning measure also establishes a new statewide drug-treatment system funded in part by tax revenue from marijuana sales and state prison savings.

While employers ended 2020 as they began it, in something of a holding pattern, there is no doubt the patchwork drug law situation has become even more complicated.

5) Caregiving

When I highlighted this topic for 2020, I knew this was an important family issue, but in no way could I have imagined how it played out this year. COVID-19 has made caregiving not only an important work-life issue, but it is now a critical social concern.

We all know the challenges faced by parents working at home. But these challenges primarily fall on women, who still do most of the caregiving. They feel the stress and strain of working, home schooling and caregiving, and trying to find balance.

Reports indicate that, without access to daycare or other resources, untold numbers of women have dropped out of the workforce. Of course, this is a terrible personal loss to individuals forced to give up ambitions and relationships. It is also a financial loss to these women and their families. We have yet to see how this loss will impact schooling, healthcare, social mobility, and other measures of advancement and well-being.

Even worse, an inability to work outside the home due to a lack of caregiving options could debilitate the advancement of our society. A sustained step backward on that front could have deep and unforeseeable consequences. However, the advances in paid family leave legislation are a step in the right direction.

While COVID-19 has introduced and intensified numerous risks none of these risks and challenges is completely new. 2020’s absence and disability trends prove yet again that crises shine a new light on what is already there. &

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