Use FMLA leave as an ‘early warning system’

Employers can use leave-taking under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as an “early warning system” to predict and prevent disability absence, according to a study by the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI), a benefits research and consulting firm.

Analyzing data from 161 companies and 520,000 employees, Early Warnings: Using FMLA to Understand and Manage Disability Absence suggests that employers have an opportunity to minimize disability costs by developing strategies to connect at-risk employees with existing benefits.

“In many ways FMLA gets a bad rap because of the spotlight on questionable claims, and employers usually focus on trying to prevent misuse of leaves,” said IBI President Thomas Parry in a media release. “The data tell a different story of how employees are using it and how there’s an opportunity for employers to prevent disability absence. Employers should consider using FMLA as an early warning system to detect impending health issues among their employees and their families.”

Among the study highlights:

• Employees who take FMLA leave are more likely to use short-term disability (STD) the following year.

• FMLA requests were predictive of a future STD claim even when leave was denied, suggesting that employees who are ineligible for FMLA leave may still benefit from interventions.

• Employees without access to STD benefits use more FMLA days.

• STD durations are longer when preceded by FMLA claims. And the likelihood of a later long-term-disability claim increases, as well.

• Intermittent FMLA leave is as likely on Monday and Friday as on any other weekday and is equally likely to be a full-day absence.

Proactive outreach

“Employers can track and analyze FMLA leave-taking data in order to promote healthier workforces and prevent disability absence,” Gregory Poulakos told SHRM Online. Poulakos, senior VP financial protection products at UnitedHealthcare, recommended that employers:

• Take advantage of FMLA as a way to improve employees’ health at early stages to prevent future disability absences.

• Connect workers who request FMLA leave with resources such as employee assistance programs, ergonomic interventions and disease management programs, regardless of an employee’s eligibility for FMLA leave.

• Coordinate activities across benefits programs silos, which continue to be barriers to effective FMLA management.

Based on UnitedHealthcare data, employers can reduce the duration of disability claims by more than 13% through proactive outreach, said Poulakos, who helps oversee UnitedHealthcare’s Bridge2Health program. “For instance, employees who are living with a cardiovascular condition receive additional support and information on filing an FMLA, disability or critical-illness claim,” he noted. “The timing and depth of that support is not possible if the employer does not use an integrated approach to employee benefits.”

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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