Why you need to keep employees who experience the onset of disability

onset of disability
Neena Bhandari

By

written on October 16, 2017

People who experience the onset of disability through illness are often managed out of the workplace. But helping them to stay usefully employed can offer benefits on both sides.

While running down a steep hill in Oman, Mark Glascodine suddenly felt that he was not in full control of his body. It was 1992 and he was working for Shell. What followed was six months of inconclusive medical tests. He felt slight imbalance at times, but it did not impede his work as the depot manager. It took five years before a neurologist in Melbourne, where he was then posted, confirmed that he was suffering from Frederick’s Ataxia, a rare genetic disability that affects one in 50,000 people.

At 32, it was deemed a late onset in his case, but his condition soon began to deteriorate. The Shell HR team explained to him about medical retirement, which he took in 2004. “They were being nice. It helped not having to sell my house and allowed me to retrain in career counselling for people with disability,” he says.

But he feels that if he had been the one offering advice back then, he would have managed things differently. “The HR manager should have explored options with me, focusing on ‘need to help the person’. It would have been good for the company to retrain me, as they had already invested in my skills for 15 years. Even part-time, I would have been a useful employee,” says Glascodine, now an associate at Bravo Consulting Group, which helps mediate solutions between employer and employee with an acquired disability.

In general, the practice for people who suffer from illnesses, such as strokes or degenerative diseases, is to sensitively manage them out of work – but research shows that there are significant health benefits for sufferers in returning to work in some capacity.

Loku Priyantha, manager HR at Adelaide-based disAbility Living says, “We have found that the sooner an employee is able to resume some kind of work, the better it is for their recovery. At work, they feel a sense of belonging and purpose, and enjoy being with their colleagues. The positive mindset also helps in coping with their injury or illness.

“Our staff are entitled to the same ‘person-centred approach’ we have towards our clients.”

Priyantha believes it is good HR practice to recognise the problem and help the employee move forward from a complex situation, such as a non-work-related injury/illness, by being creative in finding the appropriate work solutions.

To look at how the onset of employee incapacity is handled by a much bigger organisation, we can turn to IBM Australia. The company employs an occupational nurse, supported by a consultant occupational physician, to case manage employees recovering from work and non-work-related injury/illness.

Typically, this starts with asking the employee for consent for the IBM team to discuss return to work matters with the treating physician, then discussing the employee’s fitness for work with HR and the employee’s manager.

“Knowing an employee is on prolonged absence and having the ability to communicate with them as they rehabilitate is the most effective approach,” says Jill Bye, IBM’s HR director for Australia-New Zealand.

“We can then plan their return to work [RTW], accommodate what they need and have it all in place on day one. On-going communication and pre-planning means managers and colleagues are aware of medical restrictions and can arrange required physical items – thus reducing uncertainty and anxiety for all parties.”

HR is the first port of call for managers and employees and plays a central role in the RTW process for all parties, she says. Respecting medical confidentiality is continually front of mind in decision-making and information sharing. “It’s incumbent on the employer to share only what is needed for managing RTW.”

Don’t dismiss my ability

Negative assumptions about the productivity and capability of people with disability and perceptions that they present a higher work health and safety risk often lead to people with non-work-related illness/injury being disadvantaged.

Dean Stone had a brain haemorrhage at the age of 11 years and lost sensation in his right hand, but by the time he entered the workforce after high school, he was seen as “not having any disability”. He did an insurance traineeship that led to employment in the worker’s compensation field. “I found it a rewarding career, supporting people with injuries/illnesses return to work,” says Stone, who is a business partner at Boroondara Council in Victoria.

“When I started in this field, it was very much about insurance, but as the industry has grown and developed, it has become more about rehabilitation. We know that the right way to contain the cost of work cover is through the rehabilitation and early intervention framework, so that people are able to stay at work and recover. The focus is on what they can do rather than what they can’t do. We adapt the workplace or look for alternative workplaces that suit their needs.”

Nevertheless, employers have to walk a fine line through legalities and regulations, especially if the ill/injured employee no longer fits the inherent requirements of the role they were employed to do.

“At times, some of these laws tend to clash. An example of this is complying with the statutory rehabilitation frameworks, while having regard for occupational health and safety, discrimination and the various industrial requirements,” explains Stone.

Conflicting laws and regulations can become an excuse for an employer not to deal with a person who has developed a disability. As Maurice Blackburn Lawyers’ senior associate in employment and industrial law, Alana Heffernan, says: “Our workplace and discrimination laws are designed to protect people with disabilities and to ensure they are given a fair go in the workplace. Some employers, however, do exploit loopholes and this may include relying on health and safety legislation to argue an employee cannot perform their job safely, or that discrimination is not unlawful because the employee cannot meet the inherent requirements of their job.”

While work injury is covered by legislation on return to work, Glascodine says: “Non-work-related illness/injury needs to be included in the work injury legislation and workers’ compensation insurance. Currently, total permanent disability insurance or income insurance is determined by individual insurance company policy, and precludes any work or you are not considered disabled, so you risk your remuneration being terminated. Naturally, this discourages you from trying to work.”

Loss of lower-level roles

Another impediment to keeping people with reduced capabilities in the workforce is that as technology has evolved, many businesses have reduced administrative and frontline staffing roles, says Stone.

Boroondara council has developed a new process under which people with work and non-work-related injury/illness are given the opportunity to come back to work for a few hours a day and slowly build up their hours and duties. In addition, an on-site physiotherapy program has been introduced to help people stay at work.

Similarly, this year the Stroke Association of Victoria (SAV) launched The Stay at Work Initiative, a project designed for working-age stroke survivors, aimed at keeping them with their current employer while they undergo longer-term rehabilitation, with a view to them returning to their job after six months. The association’s experience has been that most people are eased out of their jobs or they felt unable to continue, as they did not receive adequate guidance on the long-term nature of rehabilitation. Most stroke survivors are not aware that life can be very different six to 12 months post-stroke from the dire situation that many experience in the immediate aftermath.

SAV executive director James Garland says: “What is missing for people who suffer trauma and face a significant acquired disability is a long-term view of recovery. Few people are looking at the future pathway to recovery for stroke survivors in a holistic sense. We know the brain can retrain, but it takes time, and people just need to be granted that time and have support to get back on their feet.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 edition of HRM magazine.

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