If a worker takes time off work because of an illness or injury, reintegrating them to work might be challenging.
This calls for companies to have a return-to-work (RTW) program.
Here is a guide to help you help your clients build an effective worker's compensation return-to-work program.
What Is The Goal Of A Workers' Compensation Return-to-Work Program?
A return-to-work program is a company's formal policy that outlines protocols and guidelines to help workers reintegrate back to work after time off due to illness or injury.
The goal of any return-to-work workers' compensation program is the safe return of workers to regular or transitional jobs in a timely and medically safe way.
Top Employer/Employee Benefits of a Return-to-Work Program
The benefits of a return-to-work program for employers include:
- Improved morale and better productivity because of social interaction and the feeling that the employer cares, which boosts employees' confidence.
- Reduced turnover and retention of experienced workers who may otherwise leave the company.
- Reduced workers' compensation costs because injured workers who return to work early will receive fewer disability benefits than if they stayed at home.
- Reduced long-term disability (LTD) and short-term disability (STD) costs and compensations.
- Reduced recovery time because an injured worker's swift but safe reintegration back to work can help hasten the healing process.
The benefits of the return-to-work program to employees:
- Retain skills, as returning to work helps recovering workers retain their skills and stay productive.
- Retain social connection with other workers in the workplace and a sense of purpose with their role and work routine.
- Financial security, as workers will be assured of their earnings depending on their disability level.
- Early return to full role because they retain their skills, are productive, and have the morale to work.
Workers' Compensation Return-to-Work Restrictions
Work restrictions in a return-to-work program dictate the jobs or roles a worker can and can't do because of their injury and recovery process.
An effective return-to-work program must outline work restrictions for workers returning from injury.
The recovering worker's treating physician may also outline the work restrictions to the employee — called medical restrictions and what activities will be restricted.
This will ensure that workers perform only tasks that are compatible with those outlined in return-to-work medical restrictions.
Step-by-Step Guide To Creating Your Workers' Compensation Return-to-Work Program
1. Create and Document a Return-to-Work Policy
Create a policy document outlining the employee's return-to-work procedure, what they need, the contact office, and the organization's commitment to their well-being.
The document must define items such as:
- Eligibility including capabilities and return-to-work restrictions.
- Need for return to work doctor's note with any work restrictions.
- Transitional job positions and light duties, as well as their durations.
- Entrance and exit criteria.
- How to handle an employee who falls sick or gets injured at work.
It should also explain the difference between a workers' comp claim and a personal injury, and the negatives of being out of work, such as loss or reduction of wages, potential loss of medical coverage, and more.
2. Maintain Compliance (FMLA, ADA, OSHA)
As an employer, you must maintain compliance with government and industry regulations while allowing workers back to work.
Some of these regulations are:
- Healthy and safe workplace for recovering workers, according to OSHA standards.
- Preventing workplace discrimination and harassment as specified in the EEOA, including the ADA regulations on disabilities.
- How the recovering workers will take time off for life events under the FMLA provisions.
Compliance will help you avoid litigation or federal government scrutiny of an employee's complaints.
3. Define Eligibility Criteria
Who is eligible for the RTW/light duty programs in your company?
Employers often reserve RTW/light-duty programs for workers collecting workers' compensation, STD, or LTD benefits.
But some employers can open up the programs to a broader group of workers to keep every worker actively employed.
This needs to come out clearly in your return-to-work policy document.
4. Assign a Return-to-Work Program Manager
You'll need someone to lead the return-to-work team or a return-to-work program manager/coordinator.
This is the point of contact for the affected employee injury/illness or RTW after.
The manager will lead a team represented by different people, such as an employee rep, supervisors, managers, occupational health and safety staff, and a union rep.
5. Identify and Develop A Job Bank With Job Descriptions For Light Duty and/or Transitional Jobs
First, you need to review the company roles to define each job function (the basic job duties that workers must perform with or without reasonable accommodation).
You'll then use the information on the organization's current job descriptions to develop a job bank with descriptions for light duties and transitional jobs.
A light-duty bank can include different assignments, such as:
- Administrative work (filing, mail handling, reception activities, data entry, etc.).
- Safety-related tasks (safety inspection, checking fire extinguishers, etc.).
- Stocking office supplies (first aid, supplies, etc.).
- Training other employees.
- Upskilling and reskilling.
These are duties that injured and disabled workers returning to work can perform.
6. Build A Training Program For Return-to-Work Program Managers, Supervisors, and Safety Managers
It's important to train the organization's return-to-work team on handling injured employees, onboarding recovering workers, safety procedures, and compliance requirements.
The training should also encompass company provisions on the RTW program and each team member's role in a worker's RTW procedure.
7. Document A Step-by-Step Process To Follow When An Employee Is Injured on the Job
Have a procedure that guides workers on what to do if an employee falls ill or gets injured.
This should detail important items, such as:
- Their first point of contact (supervisor).
- How they will receive treatment.
- Their compensation/benefits procedure.
- Their required items/documents for return to work.
- Duration of return to work/transition jobs policy.
This guide will give workers and the RTW team direction on the recovery of the job procedures.
8. Measure Program Effectiveness
Before you roll out the program, test it with a pilot team to assess its effectiveness.
You will know which procedures work well and the loopholes that need addressing before it's made public.
After releasing the program, you need to monitor its results to check if it's working as intended.
9. Create A Communication and Distribution Strategy
You need to communicate the business's RTW program to employees, which calls for a strategy.
Every employee in the organization should know about the program and how it affects them, their safety, and their well-being.
The communication strategy can include communicating it in the new-hire onboarding process, toolbox talks, and different training sessions.
A return-to-work program can help a business reduce disruptions in the workplace related to dedicated and experienced workers being away.
As their treating physician recommends, it provides modified or accommodated duties for injured workers to keep them productive and return to work safely.
The longer an injured worker stays off work, the less likely they'll return to your organization.
Developing an effective return-to-work program can help you keep your valued workers and assure them of a job after recovery.
It's also a way of showing your employees that you care about them while reducing your organization's new hire and onboarding costs.