Managing Disability in the Workplace: Everything You Need to Know

Managing Disability in the Workplace: Everything You Need to Know

“Effective management of disability in the workplace is more important today than ever before. As competitiveness in markets increases, the importance of an engaged and productive workforce becomes essential to an organization’s survival.” The CSA Work Disability Management System Standard, which was published in 2020, is based on evidence-informed best practices.

The Economic and Social Benefits of Managing Disability in the Workplace

In addition to the fact that there are societal and legal requirements to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace, a comprehensive disability management program has many health, economic, and social benefits. Simply being off work can be bad for your health.

Health Benefits

The statistics are stark. One in 13 of the working population claims disability benefits. If someone is off sick for 6 to 12 months, there is a 90 per cent chance they will not be returning to work in the foreseeable future; if they are off for more than two years, they are more likely to retire or die than return to work.

Worklessness (being off work due to injury or illness or inability to work) leads to poorer physical and mental health, loss of self-worth and self-confidence, poorer social integration, and more medical care. A study completed in the United Kingdom has calculated that worklessness has the same negative health impact as smoking 10 cigarettes a day.  Gordon Waddell indicated that “what really matters in work is the social context. We need to change the culture of work, stop focusing on the potential toxic impact of work and understand that long-term worklessness is one of the greatest risks to health.”

Reports in the literature have shown that people who are out of work as a result of disability or unemployment are more likely to have other diseases develop, and, ultimately, their lifespan is reduced when compared to people who are employed. 

Social Benefits

Disability management programs demonstrate that the organization values its workers and is able to retain valuable workers. Experienced workers are familiar with the workplace and the specific requirements of their job. Considerable time and resources have been invested in the training and orientation of workers so that they can provide the quality of service that is demanded. When a worker is ill or injured, they may not be able to provide the same level of service and in addition, replacement workers may be needed, or perhaps other workers will have to work short-staffed. Either way, quality of service may be affected. It is in the best interest of the company to have injured workers back as soon as possible to maintain production and quality. This in turn will lead to an increase in worker morale and employee productivity. For the worker, it will reduce the negative effects of disabling injury/illness and individuals can regain their former income levels and a chance to perform meaningful work thus promoting both the individual and the individual’s family’s social well-being.

In the past, recovery would occur at home and the individual would remain off work until they were completely recovered. Unfortunately, many often would not be able to return to work.  Nowadays, we know that performing work activities is a key component of rehabilitation.  The ill effects of remaining off work can cause iatrogenic health concerns and social illness. 

Financial Benefits

For employers, injuries, illness, and disability can have significant costs. Estimates in the United States, for example, are that employers spend up to 8 per cent of their payroll on disability and disability insurance.  

A survey of Canadian employers found that employer’s short-term disability costs on average were 2 per cent of payroll costs while long term disability costs accounted for 1.2 per cent of payroll. Workers Compensation costs accounted for 2.4 per cent of payroll for a total of 5.6 per cent of payroll going directly to disability costs. This same survey repeated in 2003 reported a doubling of short-term disability costs in less than 5 years.  

In 2008, Martin Shain completed a study to determine the cost of mental health in the workplace. The final tally was between 11 and 33 billion in costs to Canadian businesses. This is for mental health conditions alone. The total cost of physical and mental health disability for employers is estimated to be 8 per cent to 19 per cent of payroll depending on what the employer includes in this equation. 

Costs of Disability in the Workplace

Direct costs of disability in the workplace include the following:

  • wage replacements (WI, Sick leave, STD, LTD, WSIB);
  • replacement workers or overtime costs;
  • training costs;
  • recruitment costs; and
  • administrative charges and time.

Indirect costs of disability in the workplace include the following:

  • lost productivity;
  • lost sales;
  • supervisor and support staff time and frustrations;
  • coworkers morale;
  • turnover; and
  • employee pain and suffering.

Needless Disability

It is estimated that the indirect costs of a workplace injury could be as high as four times that of the direct cost of an injury. The average cost of a workplace claim in 2006 was $98,000 – a more than 20 per cent increase since 2002. This significant increase in costs has been attributed to the increased complexity of disability and needless disability in the workplace. Needless Disability is disability caused by delays in the systems, stakeholder competing agendas, delays in communication, lack of accommodation in the workplace, and loss of “occupational bond.” These are disabilities caused by gaps in the system, not the original injury or illness. Occupational Bond is defined by Don Shrey as the connection between the worker and the workplace. When a worker is away from the workplace due to injury or illness, the worker becomes less attached to the employer and more attached to the medical system that is treating the impairment. The role identification as a worker is lost and the employee becomes a “patient.”

Work Disability Management System Principles

  • An evidence-informed, data-driven approach that is strategic in nature to ensure sound policies and processes.
  • A focus on inclusion and accessibility to promote engagement and belonging.
  • Taking an employee-centred, supportive approach that is contextualized and individualized.
  • Promoting accommodation and timely and safe RTW that considers the essential duties of the worker’s role within the organization.
  • Joint responsibility of organizational management, the worker/workforce, and worker representatives.
  • Legal compliance.

Disability management programs are deemed successful when they can demonstrate the following:

  • Increased rate of successful returns for workers off due to compensable or non-compensable illness/injury.
  • Decreased length of time ill/injured workers are off work.
  • Measurable decrease in costs associated with workplace disability.
  • Improved employee morale.
  • Increase in or maintenance of productivity levels.

What Are the Steps in the Work Disability System Process?

  1. Create a system that identifies key responsibilities, accountability, and authority – create policies and procedures for an inclusive, accessible workplace.
  2. Plan a review of internal policies and programs to identify gaps and set objectives for the program and determine actions.
  3. Implement preventative and protective measures, accommodation, and training of all internal parties.
  4. Monitor and evaluate the performance of the management system through data collection, auditing, and management review towards continual improvement.

What are some of the things you can do as an employer to improve your disability management?


  • Ergonomics
  • Risk assessment
  • Mental resiliency
  • Mental health support
  • Success Coaching


  • Functional assessment
  • Job coaching
  • Accessibility
  • Assistive technologies
  • Return to work planning
  • RTW facilitation


  • Leadership training
  • Manager training
  • Employee training
  • Disability Manager training
  • Train the trainer

Workplace Culture

  • Stigma reduction in the workplace 

What Can Gowan Do to Help?

Gowan Consulting provides a structured approach to disability management from prevention to intervention to return to function that covers the key areas of the management system as laid out in the Standards. Our Occupational Therapists and our individualized solution-focused approach gives your organization the tools it needs to manage employees’ health needs as they arise in order to minimize the possibility or impact of work disability.

Let us help you implement the standards

Take our CSA Work Disability Management Systems Standards Training on May 12th from 10:00am to 1:00pm EST to understand the new standards published in 2020 and learn how to implement steps, tools, and strategies to audit your current program.

This virtual interactive program also includes online modules to guide you through your learning, as well as a toolkit of customizable policies and procedures. You will receive a certificate upon completion of the course that can be used for CDMP CE points.

For more information, contact us at


CSA Work Disability Management System CSA Z1011:20

GOWAN,N Human Resources Guide to Managing disability in the workplace. 2016, Carswell

Shrey, D.E. and Lacerte, Michel, Principles and Practices of Disability Management in Industry. 1994: Winter Park, FL: GR Press, Inc.

National Institute of Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR). Disability Management in the Workplace: A Guide to Establishing a Joint Workplace Program. Port Alberni, BC: 1995

Franche R-L, Cullen K, Clarke J, Irvin E, Sinclair S, Frank J. et al. “Workplace-based return-to-work interventions: A systematic review of the quantitative literature” J Occup Rehabil. 2005. Vol. 15, no. 4, p. 607-631.

Dyck Dianne E. (2002). Disability Management: Theory, Strategy and Industry Practice, Second Edition. Butterworths Canada.

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