Can Instruct

Almost all of us will encounter disability at some point in our lives. And, while each of us will cope with it differently, there's a common lesson to be learned from the experience.

By Carol Harnett

After years of participating in Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, I've left a digital footprint of my interests and the causes I champion. As a result, I wasn't too surprised when I recently received a note from a colleague I met through social media asking, "What inspired your strong connection and commitment to people living with disability?"

It only took me a moment to realize I had no simple response to that question. And that understanding inspired me to write this column.

I don't possess any of the expected traits that often come with people who work in and around the fields of disability, physical rehabilitation, and disability- and absence-related insurance products. I do not have a disability nor do any of my family members. Growing up, the only person I knew with an impairment was a playmate's brother who had a developmental disability.

Yet, my parents laid the groundwork early in my life for something larger than personal experience. They instilled in me a sense that everyone should be treated fairly, equally and with respect.

My first memory of wanting to help someone with a physical challenge was when my mom was pregnant. I recall being frightened by her inability to get out of a soft chair the week before she gave birth. It took all my strength to help her to her feet. A couple of decades later, I helped design the first weight-training program for pregnant women in the United States. My goal was to keep pregnant women as physically independent as possible.

My early career as a clinical physiologist took off from there and strayed from training elite and Olympic-level athletes to working with people with cardiac disease, low back pain, chronic pain and fatigue-related disorders such as fibromyalgia, chronic-fatigue syndrome, multiple-chemical-sensitivity syndrome and post-polio syndrome.

During those years, I learned something about how the world -- including employers -- views people with physical impairments. Employers largely wanted them to get back to the way they previously functioned, or the way the majority of employees did their jobs. And that felt unfair and disrespectful to me.

I ran two industrial rehabilitation programs during my career and personally walked injured employees back to work. It was a lot like taking your children to school for the first time -- not from an intellectual perspective, but from the viewpoints of the workers' fears of how supervisors and co-workers would respond to their return. One positive comment as the employee crossed the workplace threshold was enough to make him or her stand taller and almost skip away from me.

What should my experience with people with disabilities mean to human resource executives? It largely comes down to what a former colleague and competitor, Steve Clark from MetLife, explained when accepting an industry award about a year before he died from pancreatic cancer: Disability instructs.

If you give me access to your family medical-leave and absence data, I can largely tell you about your workplace and the culture of your company.

If the top five procedures in your short-term disability experience include voluntary surgeries such as bunionectomies and hammertoe repairs, many of these employees are seeking some respite from work. If they elect to have the procedure performed on one foot followed by the other foot six weeks later, they are really trying to get away from the workplace.

A larger-than-expected number of depression and anxiety-disorder claims involving short- and long-term disability usually indicate several trends. The first is your company is in the technology, financial services/banking, faith-based or healthcare/mental-health sector. Second, you may have a "stress-envy culture," as David Whitehouse described it in a prior column. Or, as the HR leader from a religious organization explained, your employees struggle to tell the difference between a mental-health problem and a spiritual problem. Or, your employees suffer from the shoemaker's-children syndrome, whereby they are comfortable caring for others, but struggle when seeking the same care for themselves. Or, a growing number of your employees are caregivers for older parents or grandparents, spouses or children. Finally, if you review the top drivers of your pharmacy benefit utilization, at least five of the Top 10 prescribed drugs will be psychotropic medications.

Several things should be considered if employees are out of work longer than six weeks, on average, particularly for musculoskeletal claims, such as low back pain or thoracic-outlet syndrome: You are not readily accommodating your employees' jobs to meet their physical capabilities; you may be shifting workers' compensation claims to your short-term disability experience; and your employees need a break from work.

Obviously, the above assessments are generalities and may not be specific to your organization, but they are reflective of general norms. If there is one thing that my experience with disability trends and people with disabilities have taught me, it is this: An experience with disability will happen to almost all of us at one point in our lives. Low back pain, cancer and depression are in the cards for 50 percent to 70 percent or more of us. And each of us will cope with our experience differently.

I'll close with the advice Steve Clark left for his audience, which included HR executives.

"You are in an honorable and important profession. But with honor comes responsibility, so please, always be mindful that I am the voice on the phone, the name on the list, the error on the exception report or the statistic in the report, and what I, the [disabled] employee need, is for you . . . to help me cope."

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.

Dec 16, 2013
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