FMLA: It’s not just a compliance concern

Proper use of law can help reduce absences

It’s easy to look at the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as just one more federal law, a jumble of complex compliance requirements that must be adhered to by responsible employers. But it also can offer a valuable opportunity to improve your absence management program, argues Noreen F. Orbach, PhD, a private psychological consultant in the Chicago metro area. "Merely tracking FMLA and conducting the administrative functions of reports, etc., is not sufficient. That gives you the parameters of the problem, but the cause for the leave must also be addressed," she argues.

"It’s like the difference between being a bookkeeper and a financial analyst," Orbach continues. "A bookkeeper just logs in accounts receivable and accounts payable. A financial analyst looks at the best way to use the dollars, not just what you pay out."

It’s when you start examining the cause for the leave request that you find opportunities to impact the length of that leave — or perhaps the decision to take a leave at all — Orbach explains. "When you look at it from a cause standpoint, when you identify the cause, you may be able to find supportive services for the employee," she notes. "In particular, if someone is taking out a leave request to take care of a family member, you may be able to avoid the leave or shorten the leave."

Look beyond the forms

There is no shortage of help for occupational health professionals seeking to comply with the FMLA, says Orbach, but that is simply not enough. "Yes, you have all kinds of tracking programs out there that allow employees to keep a count of the days that come out of the 12-day pot [allotted each employee], and all the required forms, including the health certification, but this should not just be a perfunctory process," she asserts. "If a medical practitioner signs off on the reasons for the leave, that merits taking a look."

Causes of leave requests that may lend themselves to creative solutions include stress at work or a family member requiring hospice care, Orbach observes. "In that case, you may be able to help the employee return to work sooner once the death has occurred, or, maybe make it possible for them to work two days a week while you’re helping them deal with end-of-life issues," she offers. "Or you could perhaps even offer preventive services; let them know that when — heaven forbid — the death occurs, you will be there for them."

A twofold strategy

FMLA was included as part of a series of absence management solutions that Orbach recently developed for a benefits services client. The solutions were divided into two categories: Those for employees requesting leave for themselves and those for employees requesting leave to take care of family members.

One common example of a request for oneself would be one for a 12-week postpartum leave, Orbach notes. "You can work with the new mom and maybe convince them to start coming back two days a week before the full 12 weeks are up, so when they do come back full-time, it’s not that traumatic," she suggests. "Even if they are adamant about taking the full 12 weeks, you may still want to provide them with some services for child care or new mother assistance, so that when they do go back to work there’s a smooth transition and a high level of productivity."

When the leave request involves a family member, the employee is the caregiver, not the patient, Orbach notes. "In this case, their direct health may not be impacted, but there could be stress-related issues," she offers, explaining why she divided her approach into these two categories. "This is a different issue."

Whatever the cause of the leave request, she recommends follow-up with the employee, both throughout the duration of the leave (seeking opportunities to reduce the duration) and once the employee returns to work, after 15 and 30 days. This would help ensure that the employee would stay at work.

"Even if the leave is totally justified, you don’t just say, See you in 12 weeks,’" insists Orbach. "You have to keep in touch; maybe something has changed that presents you with an opportunity to provide services, which in turn could shorten the leave or help the employee come back at a higher level of productivity.

"This entire strategic approach looks at identifying the problem, and not just coming up with a solution; it is clearly a problem-finding approach," Orbach concludes.

[For more information, contact:

Noreen F. Orbach, PhD. Telephone: (847) 272-1128. Fax: (847) 732-7264.]