Benefits of a Return to Work Program

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As its name suggests, a return to work (RTW) program is a plan established by a business to help reintegrate injured workers into the workplace. The goal is to return employees to the workplace as soon as they are medically able. A well-run RTW program affords benefits to both employers and their workers.

Benefits for Employers

For employers, an RTW program offers the following advantages:

  • Retain Experienced Workers. Injured workers who remain at home for an extended period may become dispirited and leave the firm. Employers can retain valued employees by encouraging them to return to the workplace as soon as they are physically able.
  • Reduce Turnover. By returning injured employees to workplace promptly, employers can avoid the cost of hiring and training temporary workers or permanent replacements.
  • Better Employee Relations. A successful RTW program signifies that the employer cares about its workers and their welfare.
  • Better Productivity. Even if they can't perform at full capacity, injured employees who return to work are more productive than they would have been at home. 
  • Reduced Costs. Injured employees who return to work part-time will collect fewer disability benefits than they would have if they remained at home. Thus, an RTW program can help reduce your worker's compensation costs.

Benefits for Employees

An RTW program also offers benefits to employees.

  • Retained Social Connections. By returning to work promptly, Injured workers can avoid feeling socially isolated. They also regain a sense of purpose from a daily work routine.
  • Financial Security. An RTW program can ensure that an injured employee retains his position at the company.
  • Skill Retention. An RTW program can help injured workers retain valuable skills.
  • Better Morale. Workers may feel better about their jobs knowing that their employer will facilitate their return to the workplace following an occupational injury.

Where To Find Help

Small business owners that wish to create an RTW program can find useful resources online. Here are some examples:

  • Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). An agency of the Department of Labor, ODEP offers a Return to Work Tool-Kit to help employers understand the return to work process. ODEP offers a service called the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which provides free guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. JAN can help small business owners choose accommodations that meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • State Agencies. Some state agencies provide resources to help employers create an RTW program. An example is the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers Compensation, which offers a return to work handbook for small businesses. This easy-to-read handbook was prepared by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE). It is designed for California employers but can be used by employers in other states.
  • Workers Comp Insurers. Many workers compensation insurers provide sample RTW programs to help their policyholders develop their own programs.

Legal Requirements

Any RTW program must comply with state and federal laws including the ADA, the Family Medical Leave Act, OSHA standards, and workers compensation statutes. The ADA is particularly relevant to an RTW program because some on-the-job injuries may qualify as disabilities under the law. The ADA deems a person disabled if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities (like walking, lifting, bending, and working).

The ADA bars employers from discriminating against workers who can perform the essential functions of their job with or without an accommodation. For example, an injured warehouse worker is unable to lift objects weighing over five pounds. Lifting isn't an essential function of his job because the worker can perform all necessary tasks using a portable lifting device. His employer must provide a reasonable accommodation (such as a mobile scissor lift) that enables him to perform his job. An accommodation is reasonable if it doesn't cause the employer undue hardship.

Returning Employees to Work

The goal of an RTW program is to get an injured worker back on the job as quickly as possible. For your program to be effective, it must include written procedures outlining the steps your company will follow from the time an injury occurs until the employee returns to the workplace. Here are six steps recommended by the IRLE.

  • Contact the Worker. Once you are aware of an injury, contact the worker directly. Help him or her complete workers compensation claim forms and explain the process for obtaining benefits. Be sure the worker understands the company's RTW program. Keep in contact with the worker with assurances that he or she won't be forced to return to work before he or she is medically able.
  • Identify Essential Job Functions. Identify the functions that are critical to the job and that the employee must be able to perform with or without an accommodation. You and the worker should agree on these functions. You may need to eliminate non-essential functions that the worker cannot perform until he or she has fully recovered. For example, a worker employed as a bus driver must be able to drive a bus. Washing the bus at the end of the day may be desirable but is not essential to the driver's job.
  • Determine Capabilities and Restrictions. Obtain an assessment of the worker's capabilities from his or her treating physician. Determine what activities (such as lifting or standing) must be restricted.
  • Evaluate Accommodations. You and the worker should research available accommodations and review the options together. Examples of accommodations are a sit/stand workstation, an ergonomic chair, a modified break schedule, working from home, a part-time work schedule, and a stair-climbing hand truck. Many accommodations cost little or nothing.
  • Choose a Reasonable Accommodation. Make the worker an offer to return to work. If the worker can't return to his or her regular job with or without an accommodation, offer an alternative. This could be another equivalent job, a lower-level position, or temporary work.
  • Monitor the Worker's Progress. Keep in touch with the worker after he or she returns to work to offer support. You may need to adjust accommodations as the worker improves.

Finalizing Your Policy

Once you've established the procedures outlined above, you'll need to assign responsibility for carrying them out. First, enlist a trusted employee to serve as the Return to Work Coordinator. This individual will oversee the program as a whole and ensure that all participants perform their assigned tasks.

Next, divide the responsibilities outlined above among several staff members. For example, a human resources manager might be responsible for explaining the RTW program to an injured worker and helping him or her to fill out workers compensation claims forms. The worker's department manager might be responsible for helping the worker choose an appropriate accommodation (if one is needed).

To complete their assigned roles, your staff will need written instructions. For instance, the staff member who assesses an injured worker's capabilities will need a written procedure on how to obtain medical information from the worker's physician. Similarly, the person who evaluates accommodations will need instructions on how to conduct the process. Instructions will be needed for each of the six steps.

Before you implement your RTW program, you should evaluate each job at your company and identify its essential tasks. Tasks are essential if they are fundamental to the job. These are the duties a worker must be able to perform to do that job. If an injured worker cannot complete these tasks, even with an accommodation, he or she cannot return to that job.

An injured worker who cannot return to his or her regular job may be able to perform other duties on a temporary basis. For examples, a worker could reorganize files or research products for future purchases. Make a list of such tasks so you and your staff can refer to it when needed.

Training and Monitoring

Once your RTW program has been implemented, you'll need to ensure that all participants are fulfilling their responsibilities. This includes your worker's compensation insurer and the medical professionals treating your injured workers. Physicians should be keeping you and your insurer up to date on injured workers' capabilities and restrictions.

Your supervisory staff will require training on how to properly interact with employees who may be disabled and require an accommodation. Employees at all levels should be informed of the RTW program. It is important they understand that the program offers benefits to workers. It is not simply a cost-saving mechanism for the employer.