Disability Management Programs and EAPs: Although They May Not Work Together or Even Know Each Other, Disability Management and EA Professionals Share a Common Goal of Reducing Worker Absences

Article excerpt

Disability management and employee assistance programs share important common ground: Both are worksite-based programs that address productivity issues and serve employee clients. From this platform, disability managers and EA professionals can find ways to increase their communication and cooperation and work together to better serve employees and employers to achieve the overall goal of absence management.

For communication and cooperation to increase, professionals from both fields must acknowledge that, while their approaches and areas of expertise are different, they are dedicated to helping employees return to work, remain at work, and work productively. This is the essence of absence management, which seeks to reduce unplanned worker absences whether due to illness, injury (work-related or not), personal problems, emotional or psychological issues, or other concerns.

There are, of course, clear distinctions between both fields of practice that must be understood and appreciated. The focus of the disability manager is on providing medical case management, job analysis, job accommodation, and other vocational and rehabilitative services to ill or injured employees. Through job accommodation, for example, an employee may be eased back into the workplace with modified duties or through a temporary, alternative job as part of the company's early-return-to-work program. For the EA professional, the goal is to identify and resolve physical or mental health, marital, family, addiction, or emotional issues or other concerns that affect a worker's job. Through an EAP, an employee can obtain the help s/he needs to return to work or remain on the job.


Despite their common goals, the reality is that disability managers and EA professionals may not communicate with each other. Experience shows that the larger the company, the less likely disability managers and EA professionals will work together or even get to know each other. The company's EAP may be located in the Human Resources Department, while disability management is situated in the Risk Management Department. Once "knowledge silos" are established in a company, they can be difficult to break down.

Even in such circumstances, however, disability managers and EA professionals can work with each other. First, the EA professional needs to know what types of disability management services are provided by the employer. For example, is there an established return-to-work program? If so, who oversees and implements it? The disability manager, meanwhile, must determine the scope of EA services offered by the company, who provides them, and the types of internal and external resources available for employees in need.

Once disability managers and EA professionals begin to communicate with each other and understand their respective programs, they will find more and more ways to work together. Consider the following true example of successful cooperation between a disability manager and an EA professional.

After a work-related injury, an employee returned to her job with modified duties and a reduced work schedule. This accommodation allowed her to come back to work more quickly than if she had waited until she was capable of performing all of her previous job requirements.

The success of this job accommodation soon began to be undermined, however, by the employee's perception that her co-workers resented the fact that she did not have to perform all of her regular duties and worked a shorter day yet received the same amount of pay. The employee grew so upset that her early-return-to-work program was in jeopardy, which would have put her back on disability at a cost to the company in benefits payments and lost productivity. For the employee, leaving her job again would further disconnect her from the workplace and deprive her of the therapeutic benefit of "work hardening" to gradually build her stamina. …