Stay at Work/Return to Work programs (often called just Return to Work programs) help supervisors manage employee injury, illness and disability and ensure that employees are able to return to the workplace as quickly and safely as possible. Programs that allow employees to resume working in an appropriate and timely manner, with or without work restrictions, are essential for minimizing health-related absences and optimizing productivity.
Returning employees to work goes well beyond treating the physical nature of the injury, health condition or disability, though. It also includes psychological impact, family and workplace dynamics. By creating an effective and holistic Return to Work program based on communication and trust, employers can take positive steps to keep their employees productive, safe and valued in the workplace.
Successful Return to Work programs have benefits for both employees and employers, including an estimated $8-$10 savings for every $1 invested in such programs. Return to Work strategies and programs have traditionally been utilized to reduce workers’ compensation costs; however, these programs are more valuable now than ever for companies to save time, money and retain essential human capital. They can also be beneficial to federal contractors and subcontractors in meeting their goals under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Specific financial and other benefits of Return to Work programs include:
- Speeding employee recovery after injury or illness.
- Employee absence.
- The costs related to training new employees.
- Medical and disability costs.
- The potential for litigation.
- Employee engagement, self-esteem and morale.
- Retention of valuable employees.
- Productivity by decreasing lost work time.
Return to Work programs are most effective when combined with:
- Injury prevention and management strategies.
- Stay-at-work strategies such as health, wellness and prevention initiatives.
- Strong support from management at all levels.
Employers can implement a wide variety of policies, processes and programming to support employees’ return to the workplace. Successful strategies include:
- Developing a written policy or procedure to help facilitate the return of injured workers.
- Establishing a strong management commitment supporting employees’ return to work.
- Partnering with employees going on leave so that they may provide input into how they can remain productive.
- Designating a return-to-work lead or representative.
- Encouraging open and honest communication among supervisors and staff.
- Implementing job modifications, adjustments or alterations to support returning workers with newly acquired job limitations.
- Providing the opportunity for transitional or light duty until employees can fully resume their former job duties.
- Identifying areas of possible re-assignment throughout the organization that accommodate employees’ capabilities.
- Providing health and risk reduction supports during employees’ transition back to work.
- Adopting a disability management approach for employees with conditions that require regular maintenance such as diabetes or hypertension.
- Implementing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to assist with emotional and behavioral health issues such as depression or stress.
Collaboration among internal and external stakeholders is critical to the success of Return to Work programs. Developing a customized approach to a Return to Work program MUST include consultation with employees, managers and human resource professionals and CAN include consultation with health care professionals and disability management consultants or other third party providers.
The U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy’s Return to Work Toolkit provides information, tools, strategies and resources to assist employees and employers with the return-to-work process. It also offers a fact sheet, Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work: Supporting Employees Who Experience Unexpected Illness or Disability, that summarizes resources available to help employees who have sustained disabilities or chronic illness to return to work or stay at work. It also explains provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that are applicable in these situations, and how intermittent leave may assist employees to remain on the job.
The Disability Management Employer Coalition can also assist employers with strategies to improve workplace productivity through better absence and disability management.