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Posted by Johanne Potvin, CHRP, November 22 2017
Disability Cases
Disability & Absence Management: A Headache For Managers?


Disability and absence management is now consuming much of the time spent on managing human resources. Not only do absences and disabilities represent a significant expense due to their high direct costs (7-10% of the insurable payroll), but they are also a day to day operational headache for managers.

In an environment where organizations are facing a severe labour shortage exacerbated by aging demographics, absenteeism is compounding the challenges, thus warranting major changes to workforce management practices.

By implementing different approaches proven to be effective for controlling absence rates, improving employee productivity and reducing the duration of disabilities, it is possible to reverse the trend and even enhance your performance! 

Absence Management and disability prevention

Several factors affect the observed outcomes. In this article, they are discussed under two main headings, i.e. the factors for which employees are “responsible”, and the factors related to the organization’s culture and management practices.

Employee-related risk factors

The employee-related risk factors that have the most bearing on the absence rate and the duration of disabilities include stress management, psychological problems, family constraints (especially for single parents), fatigue associated with commuting, employee values, needs and expectations, employee perception of their job and workplace, and finally the state of health (that can be affected in some cases by poor lifestyle habits or various addictions [gambling, alcohol and drugs]).

Although these factors play a major role in the incidence and duration of disability and absence management, employers have little influence on the source of the problems and the applicable solutions, other than reducing their impact by offering:

Organization-related risk factors

Several studies show that the presence of certain risk factors in the workplace affects employee engagement, commitment level and mental health, thus impacting absence management and the duration of disabilities.

These organizational risk factors include:

  • A heavy physical or emotional workload, especially when work is poorly organized;
  • The manager’s leadership style and the lack of clear expectations (adequately stated and communicated);
  • Poor working environment, interpersonal conflicts that are not addressed, and unclear roles;
  • Insufficient communication, especially during organizational changes;
  • Few growth and development opportunities, especially when there is little decision-making autonomy or when there is a mismatch between employee affinities and their job or between their skills and their job requirements;
  • Lack of balance between what is asked and what can be delivered and between employee efforts and the recognition or “reward” received;
  • Job insecurity or non-competitive compensation;
  • Health and safety risks resulting from the nature of the jobs.

Human resource practices that have an impact on disabilities and absence

Adopting sound workforce management practices addressing the risk factors present in your workplace can prevent absences, and reduce their duration in the event of an employee’s disability, thus making absence management easier for employers!

We recommend the 5 human resource management practices below:

1. Make employees accountable

Making employees accountable for reaching (or maintaining) an optimum work attendance rate and recognizing their efforts to perform their work in line with the expectations of their department or organization form the basis of any program designed to address absenteeism issues.

2. Organize work properly

Ensure workloads are fairly distributed, reasonable, conducive to a “feeling of accomplishment”, and are not a source of conflicts among employees. Proper work organization can also mean, whenever possible, setting up time recovery or flexible hour programs, approving applications for leaves of absence, or implementing accommodation measures.

3. Recognize efforts

Effort recognition has several advantages, such as enhancing employee “self-esteem” and offering a way to provide positive reinforcement after meeting with a challenged employee. Recognizing the efforts of your employees and encouraging them to acknowledge one another will improve team work and lead to a better working environment.

4. Pay attention to the early warning signs of psychological problems

Given the incidence of mental health issues and their impact on productivity and interpersonal relationships, managers have no option but to be on the lookout for signs of such problems and to act in a motivating and respectful manner according to each specific situation.

The early warning signs can take many forms; they can be physical (e.g. fatigue), emotional (e.g. irritable), intellectual (e.g. loss of concentration) or performance-related (e.g. disorganized). Even though they do not always forebode a looming psychological issue, they are nonetheless a source of concern and warrant meeting with the employee to explore any organizational risk factor that may be the cause of the observed problems.

5. “Manage” conflicts

Conflicts frequently occur in the workplace and can cause or extend an absence, or be a barrier to return to work. Although conflict management suggests that the persons involved should first be invited to come together to discuss their conflicts and reach common solutions on their own, the manager must ensure that such a discussion/meeting runs smoothly, acting as a mediator if necessary, and that the solutions being proposed are fair and feasible.

Conflict management may require the support of the human resources or organizational development teams depending on the complexity of the issue and who is involved. Do not hesitate to seek help, especially if you are a party to the conflict.

A clear and structured approach is key to effective disability and absence management. Should you have any questions or want to learn more about this topic, please do not hesitate to contact us!


Senior Advisor with JPotvin Santé/Productivité au travail | This article was written by our contributor, Johanne Potvin. Do you want to know more on this topic? Do not hesitate to contact her at or 514 770 1866.
Johanne Potvin, CHRP