October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which was created to recognize the contributions and skills of American employees with disabilities. For many small to midsize businesses, having an employee suddenly become disabled (because of an accident or an illness) can be somewhat daunting if it’s a new experience for the employer.
In fact, some employers might not know how to properly accommodate a disabled employee; this can be detrimental to all parties involved. "Just over 1 in 4 of today’s 20 year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67," according to the Social Security Administration.
If the employer isn't prepared to accommodate a disabled employee in their business, they might not have the tools in place necessary to welcome and accommodate the disabled employee when such an illness occurs.
Here are tips for working with employees who have disabling illnesses or injuries. These tips focus on how to work with a person who wants to come back to work. These tips will help you accommodate disabled employees and welcome them back to work.
Specific Steps for Working With Disabled Employees
These steps are recommended for working successfully to accommodate a disabled employee.
Demonstrate emotional and social support by creating an environment that is caring and supportive. Coworkers may offer assistance with childcare, meals, rides to medical appointments, and fundraisers.
Keep in touch with the employee via phone calls, videoconferencing, and cards. This is especially important for direct supervisors or managers but something coworkers can do as well.
Help the disabled employee keep their benefits.
Look for ways to enable disabled employees to keep their benefits as long as possible, especially health and disability insurance. Keeping benefits can be critical to their recovery and, in the case of family health coverage, impact the well-being of their entire family.
Flexible schedules, part-time work, decreased travel, working from home, temporarily reduced responsibilities, and having a private rest area in the workplace can all help ill employees. For example, If you have an employee who is diagnosed with cancer, weakness and fatigue may be prominent when employees receive chemotherapy or radiation.
The disabled employee may also benefit from workstation or workplace accommodations such as adaptive office equipment and furniture. Parking close to the building and having a wheelchair or motorized scooter available in the workplace can also be beneficial.
Welcome the employee back.
Make an effort to welcome them back in a way that’s significant to them whenever possible. For example, some coworkers have cut their hair for the benefit of the charitable organization, “Locks of Love,” or worn hats to show their support of ill employees who have lost their hair as a result of cancer treatments.
How Coworkers Can Welcome the Disabled Employee Back to Work
Additional ideas for welcoming an employee returning to work following a disabling illness include these ideas.
- Provide balloons, flowers, cards, and/or a welcome back banner in an employee's workspace to show that the individual was missed. One employee group decorated the returning employee's whole cubicle with plants and motivational pictures.
- Clear work out as necessary to enable an employee to return to a clean desk or work area, so he or she doesn't feel as if work was allowed to pile up while they were gone. Making sure the employee's responsibilities were well-covered during the entire time of their illness is positive for your customers and it relieves the ill employee's concerns about their job being taken care of in their absence.
- Check up on the returned employee throughout the day to be sure everything is proceeding smoothly. This applies to both friends in the workplace and supervisors, who can provide reassurance that they are glad to have the employee back.
- Provide the returning employee with simple, prepared meals, either frozen or easy to transport, that he or she can take home so they don't have to worry about preparing dinner after their first days back on the job when they are probably exhausted and stressed out.
How HR and the Manager Can Welcome the Disabled Employee Back to Work
- Provide a short debriefing on changes that occurred while the employee was out so that he or she can quickly get up to speed. This may include process and procedural changes, staffing changes, and benefit changes.
- Schedule time with Human Resources staff shortly after the employee returns to work so that accommodation needs and return-to-work welcoming needs are ensured. Employees will also want to review the status of their individual benefits, sick or PTO time, and employment status.
- Provide a healthy, midday pick-me-up snack. This can be helpful since an employee's energy may be low in the first days back at work. Be sure to check any dietary restrictions the employee may have first.
- Facilitating the employee's return on a part-time basis, gradually increasing the hours at work, can be helpful for the disabled employee's re-entry.
The Bottom Line
Employers will almost assuredly experience the need to accommodate the needs of a disabled employee at some time in their career. These ideas will help you effectively accommodate and welcome the employee back in your workplace.
Stella F. Doering, MA, CRC, CDMS, CCM, is a vocational consultant and accommodation specialist. She is certified in Rehabilitation Counseling, Disability Management, and Case Management.