Benefits of a Return to Work Program

Ask Your Workers Comp Insurer For Help Setting Up Your RTW Program

Two office colleagues talking, one using crutches

A return to work (RTW) program is a plan established by a business to return injured employees to the workplace as soon as they are medically able. The goal is to enable injured employees to be productive during their recuperation and to maintain a connection to the workplace. An RTW program offers advantages to both the business and its workers.

Advantages For Employers

Here are some ways an RTW program can benefit your business:

  • Retain Experienced Workers. Injured workers who remain at home for an extended period may become discouraged and leave the firm. You can retain valued employees by returning them to the workplace as soon as they are physically able.
  • Reduce Turnover. By getting injured employees back work quickly, you can avoid the cost of hiring and training temporary workers or permanent replacements.
  • Better Employee Relations. When you create a successful RTW program you send a message that you care about your workers and their welfare.
  • Better Productivity. Even if they can't perform at full capacity, injured employees will be more productive if they're at work than they would have been at home. 
  • Lower Workers Compensation Costs. Injured employees who return to work part-time will collect fewer disability benefits than they would have if they remained at home.

Benefits for Employees

An RTW program also offers benefits to employees.

  • Social Connections. Injured employees who return to the workplace promptly can retain their social connections. They also regain a sense of purpose from a daily work routine.
  • Financial Security. For a temporary total disability, a typical worker receives a weekly benefit of only 60% of his average weekly wage. Most workers will earn more money by returning to work.
  • Skill Retention. An RTW program can help injured workers retain valuable skills.
  • Better Morale. Your workers may feel more secure about their jobs if they know you'll facilitate their return to the workplace after an injury.

Where To Find Help

Suppose you want to create an RTW program for your small business. Where should you start? A logical place to begin is your workers compensation insurer. Many insurers offer advice and instructions on setting up a program. Some, like Employers Insurance, offer a structured RTW program.

Another useful resource is the website for the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor. ODEP offers a Return to Work Tool-Kit that can help you understand the return to work process.  It also provides a free service called the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN can help you choose suitable workplace accommodations that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). This is important since employees who have suffered on-the-job injuries may qualify as disabled under the law.

In addition to the ADA, an RTA program must comply with the Family Medical Leave Act, OSHA standards, and state workers compensation statutes.

Some employers can get help setting up an RTW program from a state agency. For example, the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers Compensation (CHSWC) offers an easy-to-read RTW handbook for small businesses.  Similarly, the Texas Department of Insurance provides detailed instructions on how to set up an RTW program.

Getting Employees Back to Work

The purpose of an RTW program is to get injured employees back to the workplace as quickly as possible. To fulfill that goal, the program must have clearly-written procedures outlining the specific actions your staff will take from the time an injury occurs until the employee returns to the workplace. The following six steps are the CHSWC's best practices for returning injured employees to work:

  • Contact the Worker. Contact the worker directly as soon as you learn of the injury. Explain the workers compensation benefits that are available and help the worker complete a claim form. Describe your firm's RTW procedures and how they can benefit workers. Keep in touch with the worker throughout his recuperation.
  • Identify Essential Job Functions. Identify the essential job functions the employee must be able to perform with or without an accommodation. You and the worker should agree on these functions. If the worker can't perform non-essential functions, those can be eliminated until the worker has fully recovered. For example, an injured worker employed as a bus driver must be able to drive a bus. Washing the bus at the end of the day is a non-essential function that can be temporarily eliminated or assigned to another worker.
  • Determine Capabilities and Restrictions. Obtain an assessment of the worker's capabilities from his treating physician and determine what (if any) activities must be restricted.
  • Evaluate Accommodations. Research available accommodations and review the options with the worker. Examples of accommodations are screen reader software, an ergonomic workstation, and a part-time work schedule. Many accommodations cost very little.
  • 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 such a lower-level position or temporary work.
  • Monitor the Worker's Progress. Offer support to the worker after he returns to work. You may need to alter or adjust accommodations as the worker improves.

Note that each of the six steps described above will require written instructions so your staff members clearly understand what they are expected to do. For instance, the person who analyzes an injured worker's job will need instruction on how to distinguish essential job functions from non-essential functions. Similarly, the person who evaluates accommodations will need instruction on how to go about the process.

Your supervisory staff will require training on how to properly interact with employees who may be disabled and require an accommodation.

Finalizing Your Policy

Once you've created your RTW procedures, you'll need staff to carry them out. Your first task is to enlist a trusted employee to serve as the Return to Work Coordinator. This individual will oversee the program and ensure that all employees and staff members perform their assigned roles.

Your next task is to 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.

Before implementing your RTW program, you'll need to evaluate each job and identify its essential tasks. If an injured worker cannot complete essential tasks, even with an accommodation, he or she cannot return to that job.

Monitoring Your Program

Once your RTW program has been implemented, you'll need to monitor its results to ensure it's working as you intended. Your program will be successful only if all participants are fulfilling their responsibilities. For example, physicians treating your injured workers should be communicating effectively with you and your insurer regarding the workers' physical condition, their capabilities, and any work restrictions they need.

Article Sources

  1. IRMI." Return-To-Work Program." Accessed May 21, 2020.

  2. Hartford Insurance. "How Is Workers' Comp Calculated?" Accessed May 22, 2020.

  3. Employers Insurance. "EMPLOYERS Return to Work Program." Accessed May 25, 2020.

  4. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. "Return-to-Work Toolkit for Employees & Employers." Accessed May 22, 2020.

  5. Job Accommodation Network. "Practical Solutions – Workplace Success." Accessed May 22, 2020.

  6. State of California Department of Industrial Relations. "Helping Injured Employees Return to Work." Accessed May 22, 2020.

  7. Texas Department of Insurance. "Return to Work Works." Accessed May 22, 2020.

  8. State of California Department of Industrial Relations. "Helping Injured Employees Return to Work," Pages 6-10. Accessed May 22, 2020.