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Building an effective return-to-work program

Building an effective return-to-work program

Serious workplace injuries continue to hurt the bottom line for employers, a cost to businesses estimated at more than $55 billion a year.  A well-rounded return-to-work (RTW) program can help employers better control the total impact and costs of workers being away from the job, while helping employees quickly recover both physically and financially from an illness or injury. It is critical to stay ahead of the curve and establish a RTW strategy, ensuring your business is ready to proactively address return challenges and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Today, a truly holistic RTW program should include a framework that addresses issues before and after injuries occur, as well as options for return-to work transitions and early return-to-work (ERTW) and stay-at-work (SAW) strategies. Following best practices, we’ve put together a basic blueprint to help you take the first steps toward building an effective and sustainable RTW program from start to finish.

Before injuries occur

Start by defining your business’s RTW goals. Do they accurately reflect the company’s commitment to helping employees get back to work as soon as they are medically able after an injury or illness? Are there processes in place to adequately cover work that needs to be completed? Consider the following four steps to help you get started:

  • Develop a formal return to work program. Establish a clear and consistent RTW policy. Consider assembling a RTW team and get weigh in and support from managers and employees. Think carefully about how your program might help beyond workers compensation, such as in returning employees who are out on short and long-term disability for non-work-related medical issues.
  • Identify potential temporary light-duty assignments for each appropriate job category. In some instances, it may not be possible to return an injured employee to a temporary position. Work with your third-party administrator (TPA) or insurer to identify potential temporary light-duty assignments – such as local nonprofit organizations and volunteer sites.
  • Involve your entire organization. Train supervisors regarding the importance of open employee communication, RTW best practices, and internal resources for decision-making. Consider assigning on-site RTW coordinators.
  • Partner with a TPA or insurer who understands the importance of RTW and manages it within the claims process. Collaboration with a TPA or insurance provider with a strong RTW focus can help provide support for you and your employees before an event occurs, and continue through a successful RTW. Look for a partner with the professional resources to effectively address key issues and coordinate all aspects of your RTW.

Post-Injury Next Steps

An effective RTW program should include procedures as to how to handle an incident immediately after an employee is injured. When working with your TPA or insurer best practices should include:

  • Engaging the injured worker early in the process. The injured employee should immediately be educated on the workers compensation process, given a summary of what to expect, and be provided with key claim information such as claim number and claim manager contact information. This should also include a discussion concerning various RTW options and helping the employer understand the value of ongoing communication with injured employees, such as letting workers know they are welcome back and discussing the formal RTW plan.
  • Identifying “yellow flags.” There are certain cautionary predictors that have been shown to prolong recovery or delay return to work. They commonly include certain psychological and social issues associated with claimants who internalize an injury and pain, have tense relationships with their employer, or fear re-injury, for example. An experienced TPA or insurer can identify and quickly assign the resources needed to address specific issues.
  • Working collaboratively. Communication should be maintained and information facilitated between the employer, employee, Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant, and treating physician to develop a formal RTW plan based on the claimant’s injury, limitations, restrictions, return date and job requirements. It’s vital for the treating physician to understand the injured employee’s job duties and the willingness of the employer to return the worker to light duty.
  • Monitor progress. When an injured employee returns to work, the employer should expect the TPA or insurer to track the employee’s progress in the temporary assignment, suggest appropriate accommodations that may allow that worker to return to the former position, and identify and resolve any issues that arise.

For disabled employees returning to work, a job analysis and/or workstation assessment may be necessary to determine necessary accommodations and opportunities for modifications.

Addressing RTW transitions

Returning to work full time after an illness or injury doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Options for employees can include a gradual part-time to full-time transition, providing limited duty or alternate work tasks, and working temporarily from home. These options offer benefits to both employers and employees.

Benefits to employers:

  • An employee that maintains a strong focus on returning to work
  • Reduced costs associated with retraining, overtime, and hiring temporary help
  • Minimizing possible negative effects associated with company productivity
  • Retaining trained workers and reducing turn over
  • Paying wages for work vs. insurance carrier paying benefits
  • Ensuring compliance with ADA requirements

Benefits to employees:

  • May help to alleviate concerns over continued employment
  • Providing a feeling of being needed and valued
  • May help to shorten overall recovery time

Be sure transitional work options are well-defined and in accordance with the worker’s medical provider’s approval.

Establishing ERTW and SAW initiatives

ERTW and SAW programs can help employers experience a reduction in lost productivity, lower compensation and healthcare costs, fewer total claims, and less paid in weekly benefits. Research has evidenced an improvement in ERTW and SAW efforts by implementing strategies that include:

  • Establishing early and supportive contact with employees
  • Making necessary work and workplace accommodations
  • Maintaining contact between healthcare providers and the workplace
  • Scheduling regular ergonomic work site visits
  • Assigning a specific RTW coordinator
  • Getting buy-in and support from labor-management

Getting workers back on the job sooner rather than later can result in 72 percent fewer lost work days, and workers who are four times less likely to seek additional healthcare.

Providing workplace support for employees who are in recovery allows them to stay at work productively. Initiatives include:

  • Making modifications to existing work stations
  • Being flexible with work hours and rest breaks
  • Providing personal coping support
  • Conducting informal, self-directed interventions – when necessary
  • Assigning alternate duty options and work tasks

A properly implemented return to work program is a win-win for employers and their employees. To learn more about how partnering with Liberty Mutual can make it easier for you to build a successful program or improve on an existing RTW strategy, contact your representative.

This website is general in nature, and is provided as a courtesy to you. Information is accurate to the best of Liberty Mutual’s knowledge, but companies and individuals should not rely on it to prevent and mitigate all risks as an explanation of coverage or benefits under an insurance policy. Consult your professional advisor regarding your particular facts and circumstance. By citing external authorities or linking to other websites, Liberty Mutual is not endorsing them.