Disability management pegged: Part 1

Gabrielle Lis

You don't have to hang anybody out to dry to get your systems pegged. Instead, make plans and make friends.

Successful disability management depends upon the adoption of a whole-of-organisation approach.  Everyone from senior management, through injured workers, supervisors and your average water-cooler camel needs to be on board if the system is to function efficiently, sustainably and supportively.

If this level of organisational commitment and coordination seems like a big ask, it can be helpful to remind yourself that the main skill needed to implement a best practice work disability management program is good project management, with just a little specialist expertise thrown in.

This three part series breaks the process down into not-quite baby steps, to help you peg disability management, without hanging injured workers or your employer out to dry.

First up, we outline the basic plan of attack and get you started on the first two steps: making a decision about who will direct the process and convincing senior managers and workers that best practice disability management is a gold mine waiting to be plundered.

Disability management Plan of Attack

Your basic disability management POA is eleven-pegged. Sound unwieldy? It isn’t necessarily. Collaboration is the catch-cry of disability management and RTW. You might be calling the shots, but you don’t have to go it alone. Seek help where and when you need it and don't be afraid to delegate.

The eleven pegs are…

  1. Decide whether it is going to be an “in-house job”, or whether some of the planning, assessing, implementation and review will be outsourced;
  2. Get the commitment of senior managers to start the process and see it through;
  3. Communicate with workers about the process, and get them on side too;
  4. Use a range of information—including surveys, work disability and claims information—to understand the situation in your organisation;
  5. Develop the organisation’s IT systems to allow you to gather and analyse this information in the most efficient manner;
  6. Establish a dialogue with staff to identify specific problems and practical solutions;
  7. Generate an action plan using all the available information;
  8. Implement and evaluate any interventions identified;
  9. Create sustainability by training staff in the organisation to run the process;
  10. Understand and develop the organisation’s policies and procedures; and
  11. Review the process should situations / procedures at work change, for example a change of shifts or new equipment.
Step One: In-house or out-house?

Depending on the size of your organisation and the expertise at your fingertips, you might decide you need an external provider to help employees, managers and the organisation as a whole to implement an effective disability management system.

Assistance with work disability programs is best achieved by those who:

  1. Understand the common issues;
  2. Can influence the whole organisation, from senior staff to the factory floor; and
  3. Recognise that their role is to facilitate and support.

When involving external providers, it is important to ensure they have the skills and competencies you need.  A clear, written understanding of what the external provider will do and what will remain the responsibility of your organisation is important.

Step Two A: Friends in high places

Many employers are already committed to the management of work disability. If this isn’t the case in your organisation, or if commitment seems to be more about rhetoric than practice, you’ll need to secure yourself some friends in high places.

The best way to engage senior managers is to present a business case.  The business case can be supplemented by an ethical case for supporting staff with an injury, and improving the organisations’ standing with employees and the community.

The business case starts with an assessment of the costs of the existing ad-hoc or adversarial approach, including:

  • Direct costs such as the WorkCover premium, any wages not covered by the premium, and other costs, such as health and safety fines; and
  • Indirect costs, including staff replacement, supervisor time, administration, which are estimated to be four times the direct costs.

The business case then presents the advantages of a well-managed system, which are:

  • Reduced costs;
  • Improved staff morale;
  • Supervisors freed up to concentrate on productivity;
  • Better corporate image; and
  • Improved customer service through better staff engagement.

Other reasons for senior management to get on board include:

  • The ethical case for tackling work disability;
  • Employers are subject to a general duty of care for their staff; and
  • The legal case - return to work offers are expected.  Regulators are increasingly assessing employer performance, with prosecutions of employers who do not offer return to work programs are on the rise.
Step Two B: Friends on the floor

There are a number of ways to get employees and their representatives committed to best practice injury management.  The following are key principles:

  • Involve employee representatives (eg trade union and health and safety representatives) at the beginning of the process.
  • Involve employees and their representatives in evaluating the problem and working out solutions.
  • If you decide to confine your efforts to a limited section of your organisation, consider how best to inform other employees.