Benefits of a Return to Work Program

Two office colleagues talking, one using crutches
Image courtesy of [PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson] / Getty Images.

As its name suggests, a return to work 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 return work program affords benefits to both employers and their workers.

Benefits for Employers

A return to work (RTW) program offers a number of advantages to employers.

  • Retain Experienced Workers: Injured workers who remain at home for an extended period may become dispirited. They may eventually leave the firm. An employer can retain valued employees by returning them to the workplace as soon as they are physically able.
  • Reduce Turnover: By returning injured employees to work, employers can avoid the cost of hiring and training replacement workers.
  • Better Employee Relations: A RTW program can improve employer-employee relations. By operating the program, the company demonstrates that it cares about employees' welfare.
  • Better Productivity: Injured employees who return to the workplace will be more productive than they would have been had they remained at home. 
  • Reduced Costs: Even if they return to work only part-time, injured employees will collect fewer disability benefits than they would have if they remained at home. Thus, a RTW program can help reduce your workers compensation costs.

    Benefits for Employees

    A RTW program is more than just a cost-saving tool for employers. It also offers benefits to employees.

    • Better Morale: Injured workers who remain at home can feel socially isolated. By returning to the job quickly, employees retain their social connections. They also regain a sense of purpose provided by a daily work routine.
    • Financial Security: A RTW program can ensure that an injured employee retains his position at the company.
    • Skill Retention: When injured workers remain at home, their skills can deteriorate. A RTW program can ensure their skills are retained.

    Helpful Resources

    Suppose you've decided that you want to create a RTW program for your company. Where do you begin? A good place to start is the Internet. Many online resources on RTW programs are available to small businesses. Here are some examples:

    • Department of Labor: The DOL's Office of Disability Employment Policy offers a Return to Work Tool-Kit. The toolkit is designed to help employers understand the return to work process.
    • Job Accommodation Network (JAN)Also created by the Office of Disability Employment Policy, JAN offers free guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. The organization can help small business owners understand what types of accommodations meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
    • Institute for Research on Labor: The Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) is part of the University of California at Berkeley. It has developed a return to work handbook for small businesses. While the handbook is designed for California employers, it can be used as a guide by employers in other states. The handbook is easy to read and readily available online.

    ADA Requirements

    When you establish a RTW program, you must ensure that it complies with state and federal laws. These include the ADA, OSHA standards, and workers compensation statutes. The ADA is relevant to a RTW program because a worker injured on the job may qualify as disabled under the law. Under the ADA, a person is considered disabled if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities. Examples of major life activities are 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, a disabled assembly line worker is unable to stand for more than five minutes at a time. Standing isn't an essential function of the job because the worker can perform all necessary tasks while seated in a chair. His employer must provide a reasonable accommodation (such as a chair) that enables him to perform his job. An accommodation is reasonable if it doesn't cause the employer undue hardship.

    You can learn more about the ADA by visiting websites on the subject provided by the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor. You may also want to consult an attorney.

    Returning Employees to Work

    The goal of a RTW program is to get an injured worker back on the job as quickly as possible. For your program to be effective, you must have written procedures in place for responding to on-the-job injuries. Your plan should outline the steps your company will follow from the time an injury occurs until the employee returns to the workplace. Here is a six-step procedure recommended by the IRLE.

    • Contact the Worker: Once you are aware of an injury, contact the worker directly. Help him or her complete the workers compensation claim form. Explain the procedures involved in obtaining workers compensation benefits. Inform the worker about the company's RTW program. Assure the worker that he or she won't be forced to return to work before he or she is medically able. Keep in contact with the worker throughout the recovery process.
    • 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). For example, a worker employed as a bus driver must be able to drive a bus. Washing the bus at the end of day may be desirable, but is not essential to the bus driver's job. You and the worker should agree on the essential functions. You may need to eliminate non-essential functions that the worker cannot perform due to the injury.
    • 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: Research the available accommodations. Ask the worker to do the same so you can compare your results. 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 can be provided at little or no cost.
    • Choose a Reasonable Accommodation: Make the worker an offer to return to work. The worker may be able to return to his or her regular job with a reasonable accommodation. If not, offer an alternative. This could be another equivalent job, a lower-level position, or temporary work.
    • Implementation and Monitoring: 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. The tasks should be divided up 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 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.