Employee Engagement and Absence Management

July 7, 2021

What do you get when you combine accumulated vacation time, delayed medical procedures, hybrid work arrangements, an assortment of COVID-19 related health issues and a snarl of regulatory red tape? If you’re a manager or HR professional, you get recurring absence-management headaches.

Fortunately, this malady has both a treatment and a cure. The treatment: intra-organization communication. The cure: employee engagement.

“Employee engagement” is a buzzword in the HR world, but it begs three questions:

  1. What is its value?

  2. How do you achieve it?

  3. How do you measure its success?

Join Alera Group on Thursday, July 15, for “Employee Engagement: Do Your Policies and Communications Meet Your Goals?,” a webinar designed to answer those questions and more. During the SHRM- and HRCI-certified session, you’ll learn how to:

  • Make your employees active participants in communications regarding your organization’s policies and procedures;

  • Ensure those policies and procedures align with your business goals

  • Quantify the results of your organization’s communications with employees.

Timely Topic: Absence Management

Employee engagement and purposeful, effective communications are always important — but never more so than amid the disruption caused by a pandemic.

Because of shutdowns that limited travel and activities from late winter of 2020 through late spring of 2021, employees have lots of unused time personal off (PTO), along with plenty of uncertainty about how to use it. In addition, many be in need of paid or unpaid leave for:

  • A voluntary medical procedure delayed due to the pandemic

  • Short- or long-term disability resulting from COVID-19

  • The need to care for a family member.

Many employees are confused or anxious about using the time available to them, uncertain about whether they’re entitled to pay during leave, and worried about their job status when they return from leave. Some may wonder whether they’ll have a job to return to at all. Employers, meanwhile, face mounting financial losses from decreased productivity or increased staffing expenses — or both — due to extensive and concurrent employee absences.

Adding to the confusion are layers of laws related to COVID-19 and family or medical leave, with new state and local regulations to follow in addition to already-existing federal leave and accommodation laws. Increasing numbers of employers have their own organization-specific policies, particularly regarding paid family leave and, as per the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) are in the process of deciding if temporary changes they made will become permanent.

As Alera Group detailed in our June 2020 report “COVID-19 Pulse Survey, Part 2: Update on Employer Impacts,” about one quarter of surveyed employers with fewer than 500 enrolled lives were offering employees who were unable to work due to COVID-19 leave and/or pay beyond what was required under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which was extended by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) on a voluntary basis through September 30, 2021.

The report continued: “For employees who are unable to work because of COVID-19, the majority of employers are providing full pay through company sick leave, PTO or vacation banks. Companies are also providing full pay through a combination of sick leave, PTO, vacation, statutory paid leave requirements and a COVID-19 company program. These policies are primarily applied to all employees throughout the organization.”

COVID-19, Disability and ‘Long COVID’

According to the Disability Insurance provider Unum, COVID-19 last year was the third-leading cause of short-term disability for U.S. workers overall (and the No. 1 cause of disability among manufacturing workers), causing a spike that made 2020 a record year for short-term disability claims and leave requests. Unum also reported a record number of behavioral health claims in 2020, with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, substance-abuse disorder and stress making behavioral health the year’s fifth-leading cause of disability.

In 2021, employers have a growing concern: the long-term effects of COVID-19, or what’s come to be known as “Long COVID.” The publication Human Resource Executive recently noted, “As immunization rates rise and the pandemic recedes, employers should turn more attention to those who have had COVID-19 and continue to have disabling symptoms weeks and months later.” The effects of Long Covid vary widely, according to Human Resource Executive, include “difficulty concentrating, fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid heart rate, loss of sense of smell and taste, anxiety and depression.”

Employees suffering from Long COVID may have limited protections under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), which absent other coverages could be unpaid and result in eventual job loss.

As Human Resource Executive concluded, “HR departments can protect their employees and their companies by becoming familiar with Long COVID, treating employees complaining of these symptoms with empathy, and developing clear policies and procedures to address employees who complain of residual symptoms after recovering from COVID-19.”

Engaging and Informing Your Workforce

If you’re an employer or HR professional, whether addressing Long COVID or other issues related to absence management, employee engagement is vital and, per Spring Consulting Group, one of the top advantages of an effective program.

The best information in the world can’t help you if your intended audience is oblivious or unreceptive, and a disengaged workforce can be very expensive. According to the 2017 Engagement Institute study “DNA of Engagement: How Organizations Can Foster Employee Ownership of Engagement,” disengaged employees cost organizations between $450 billion and $550 billion per year.

Engaged employees share their employer’s commitment to meeting organizational goals. According to a 2020 report on global employee experience trends by the business analytics firm Qualtrics, engaged employees show behaviors such as:

  • Intent to stay within the organization

  • Effort above and beyond their defined roles

  • Willingness to recommend the company to peers or colleagues.

Employee engagement is the result of doing company communications right.

As Alera Group Executive V.P.-Employee Benefits Sally Prather recently wrote in an article for HRO Today:

“Effective communication is targeted, timely, and integrated with the organization’s benefits enrollment program. It’s important to set metrics to gauge the success of the communication’s campaign.

“Assessing health and wellness benefits is an essential task to ensure long-term viability and sustainability, as well as an engaged, satisfied workforce. Given the uncertain impact of COVID-19 on health and wellness benefits, it’s important for businesses to take stock and fully assess their programs.”

For employees who have requested medical leave, communication should begin with initial notification letters and claim forms, followed by a letter of approval or denial, or a request for additional medical information. Each communication should be available to the employee in multiple forms, including mail, email, self-service portal and direct text.

Language in employee communications should be simple and straightforward, personal in tone but in a manner that makes clear the purpose and eligibility requirements of the requested leave. Details should be provided both separately and in summary, and should include information about job protection.

Employees should come away with a firm understanding of each step in the process — before, during and after leave – along with confidence that the organization is looking out for their best interests.

Useful Additions to Your HR Toolkit

During next week’s webinar, we’ll present examples of best practices in employee communications through all phases employee absence and a step-by-step checklist of the communications process, providing you with information and tools to engage your workforce, improve efficiencies and enhance your organization’s reputation as a great place to work.

To register, click on the link below.


About the Authors

Jennifer Bundy-Cobb

Employee Benefits Services Director

Wilson Albers, An Alera Group

Jennifer Bundy-Cobb has worked in the field of employee benefits, including human resources and retirement services, for more than 30 years. A charter member of the Alaska chapter of the National Association of Health Underwriters, she is actively involved in grassroots healthcare reform and was a founding board member for Alaskans for Sustainable Healthcare Costs. She also is a member of Alera Group’s Employee Benefits Advisory Council and serves on several national workgroups. Jennifer holds multiple professional designations, including Certified Employee Benefit Specialist (CEBS®).

Contact information:

Karen English, ACI, AU, ARM, CPCU

Senior Vice President

Spring Consulting Group, An Alera Group Company

Karen English has more than 20 years of experience in the property and casualty and health & welfare arenas, with an emphasis on product development, risk financing, process improvement and project implementation. In addition to strategic direction and quantitative and qualitative analysis, she provides implementation expertise for workers’ compensation and disability insurance, and particularly absence management, health and productivity programs. Karen is committed to researching how disability, absence management and health management programs can be integrated into her clients’ benefit programs, and she uses that research to develop employee-focused solutions that provide a cost savings for the employer. 

Contact information: