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Employee family matters expected to take center stage

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It's a heady time for disability and absence managers with growing emphasis on cost containment through well-being initiatives and a focus on new regulations and their implications. Terri L. Rhodes, CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, discusses these trends and opportunities.

The disability and absence management landscape continues to undergo rapid change, driven by legal and regulatory requirements and a millennial generation-led shift in social attitudes about work-life balance. And though it can be a challenge to keep up, these changes create opportunity for disability and absence management professionals to expand their skills and increase their value. With that in mind, here are five trends to watch in 2016:

Push for paid leave

If paid family and sick leave were big issues in 2015, they will be the issues of 2016. More large employers will follow the likes of Netflix Inc., Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp., Adobe Systems Inc., Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. to implement or expand leave policies. For example, last year Microsoft extended paid leave to 12 weeks, while those who have spent a year at Facebook can take up to 20 weeks of paid family leave.

And there are additional efforts to pass paid leave laws in cities and states, including Washington, D.C., and Maryland. California, Connecticut, Vermont and New York have leave laws, as do San Francisco; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; New York; Jersey City, New Jersey, and others.

Perhaps as important, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have signaled their intentions to build on the Family Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993 to give employees unpaid time off to handle various personal needs and make paid federal leave a significant campaign issue in the president election.

This would mean more complex process management, heightened compliance demands and increased public attention to organizations that come under legal or other scrutiny. That will make 2016 the year in which large numbers of disability and absence management professionals become leave law experts.

Assistance with ADA

As with FMLA, more employees are aware of their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990 to ensure equal employment opportunities and public access for people with disabilities. So growing numbers of employers will look to their short-term disability and long-term disability insurance and FMLA partners to help them manage the ADA process. Tools and resources to assist in this include software systems to help with accommodation requests and processes associated with the ADA. These tools are increasingly cost-effective, with software licensing costs falling dramatically. In fact, costs have fallen so far that even small businesses can now afford to automate their leave processes.

Workforce well-being

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2010, has shifted the focus in workplace health initiatives from treatment to prevention. These programs reduce absence and/or disability. One 2012 review of 62 studies, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, found 25 percent lower sick leave, health plan, workers compensation and disability insurance costs among companies that had wellness programs.

Wellness is being transformed from a nice perk of gym memberships to more comprehensive workforce well-being programs, with dedicated budgets and administrative staff that not only develop wellness programs, but also enable employees to participate without feeling like they're having to choose between their jobs and a healthy lifestyle. With these programs, embedded in workplace culture, prevention is a key tool in controlling health care costs. A 2014 Harvard Business Review study of 20 companies found an average annual health care cost increase of 1-2% for companies with comprehensive wellness programs, compared to the 7% national average. Disability and absence management professionals are being called on to play a larger role in designing and implementing these programs. That will accelerate in 2016.

In addition, there will be more workplace well-being emphasis on behavioral health. More disability and absence management professionals, as well as health practitioners, understand the connection between the mind and body in absence, disability and overall health. In a study, depressive disorders accounted for more than half of all medical plan dollars paid for mental health problems. The amount for treatment of these claims was close to the amount spent on treatment for heart disease.

Depression and other mental health issues are increasingly recognized as major concerns in employee well being. Attention to these areas reduces health-related costs, including those related to productivity. For example, a study conducted in Netherlands and published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that employees absent due to common mental health disorders returned to the job on average 65 days earlier and saved employers an average of $5,275 when provided work-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.

Professional opportunities

As leave and health care change, absence and disability professionals face significant new demands. They need to be aware of laws and regulations and new approaches to minimizing health care costs. In progressive companies, this translates into organization-wide cooperation that lets disability professionals collaborate across all departments.

It also gives professionals tremendous opportunities to expand their networks, skills and credentials, and 2016 will see at least one new professional designation. Certified Leave Management will join Certified Professional Disability Management and others available to those entering the field and those seeking to enhance their credentials. With it and the continued accumulation of skills, disability and absence management professionals will add more value to their organizations.

The result will be a new level of professional and personal rewards.

Increase in EEOC enforcement

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's interest has shifted from individual violations to systemic discrimination, with a new emphasis on pregnancy issues.

Systemic investigations and cases address workplace discrimination issues on a broad scale in an industry, profession, company or even geographic area.

With regard to maternity issues, the EEOC issued revised guidance on compliance with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. In the new guidance, a response to the U.S. Supreme Court's criticism of the EEOC's guidance in Young v. United Parcel Service Inc., the EEOC made clear it will broadly interpret cases when pregnancy-related conditions will be considered disabilities under the ADA.

So what does this mean for you in 2016? Employers will need to ensure they are paying attention to policies, practices and processes for employees taking leave, which has become a political and social issue and has thus caught the attention of increasing numbers of corporate executives.

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Contact her at trhodes@dmec.org or 800-789-3632, ext. 117.