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5 Tips for Developing a Successful Return to Work Program

Brian Reimer, Strategic Risk Advisor

No one likes to see a valued employee get injured on the job or experience an illness. Not only can it put a dent in morale, it can impact productivity when those conditions keep workers from performing their regular duties.

Helping an employee who faces such challenges get back to work quickly may require accommodations to support his or her recovery. A Return to Work (RTW) program helps establish guidelines and protocols for working in a temporary, limited or light duty capacity until a person is able to resume normal activities, and it benefits both the employee and the employer.

Here are reasons every organization should have an established RTW program, and tips for making yours as effective as possible.

Benefits of a Return to Work Program

In addition to boosting employee morale, and providing financial security to injured workers, RTW programs also benefit organizations by helping workers retain valuable skills, improving compliance and reducing short- or long-term disability claims, which can help keep workers’ compensation costs in check.

Return to Work programs are especially beneficial in light of the current labor shortage. Some studies show that the longer an employee is off work after an illness or injury, the less chance there is that they’ll ever return. Implementing an RTW program can play a significant role in avoiding costs associated with hiring and training temporary workers or permanent replacements.

Tips for Creating a Return to Work Program

1. Foster a Receptive Culture

A RTW program needs the support of every team member from the top down. Leadership needs to create buy-in by communicating the importance of the program and its main purpose, which is to help injured or ill workers get back on their feet. Let everyone know about the program through company newsletters, informational sessions, posters and emails. Show sincere empathy, concern and care for workers who face difficult times to build trust and understanding and help them know their role and contributions to the team are valued.

2. Have Detailed Job Descriptions

To determine modified job duties, it’s important to first establish the requirements of a position and the expectations of a fully able-bodied employee, including any physical requirements — the ability to lift more than 50 pounds or standing for long periods of time, for example. Imagine the difficulty for a healthcare provider to determine when someone can return to normal job duties if those duties aren’t established in the first place.  

The types of modifications can vary widely, from temporarily assigning someone to another area or offering opportunities to work from home on a revised schedule. It could also include providing additional resources for carrying out duties, such as mechanical assistance for lifting or breaks that allow a worker to rest or receive treatments. The key is to help participants still make meaningful contributions until they are able to return to their full duties.

Overwhelmed by Human Resource Duties?

3. Ensure Compliance

State and federal laws, including the ADA, the Family Medical Leave Act, OSHA standards and workers compensation mandates must be adhered to as part of any RTW program. Injured workers may legally qualify for disability if they are limited in their abilities to walk, lift, bend or work, and an employer cannot discriminate against them if they can’t perform their normal job functions. The ADA requires that the employer provide reasonable accommodations.

Establish who will oversee the program, ensure compliance and work closely with participants to coordinate their transitions and work with them and their healthcare providers to determine any modifications.

4. Communicate

Perhaps no greater responsibility of coordinating the RTW program is to stay in touch with a worker who’s been injured or is suffering from a long-term illness. If an injury occurred on the job, it’s important to contact the worker to help file a workers’ compensation claim and go through the process for obtaining benefits without allowing too much time to pass. Show care and ensure the person that his or her job is secure, and that he or she can return to work once medically able. Discuss options and a potential time frame for returning, letting the person know that the work he or she does is valued and important.

Once a worker returns, continue offering support and check in on his or her progress. Often times, workers are eager to return to their normal duties, so ensure that their job functions are adjusted appropriately and incrementally until they’re able to return to full capacity.

5. Improve Safety

If an injury occurred at work, it’s imperative that measures are taken to ensure it never happens again. Establish a safety committee and promote a culture of safety within your organization to not only protect workers but your bottom line as well.

If you need help defining what an effective RTW program might look like for your organization, reach out to McClone. Our strategic risk advisors can perform a risk assessment, provide recommendations and explore various ways to reduce your risks.