As a small business owner, the last thing you want is an employee to get injured at work. But if the dreaded happens, should you sit back and wait until the worker recovers—however long it takes?
That approach might be okay when an employee has a minor injury and will only be out for a day or two. However, it doesn’t work so well when an employee might be out for weeks or months with a major injury. When injured workers sit at home for a long time, they can rack up big disability claims. As time goes by, they may feel lonely and depressed. Some might never return to work at all.
This is where a return to work program can come into play. It can help get employees back to the workplace sooner, even if they’re still recuperating. It’s a win-win. You keep valued workers and lower the cost of workers’ comp claims. Your workers get back to their jobs and a full paycheck.
So what exactly is a return to work program? And how do you go about creating one? We’ll dive into all that and more. So let’s get started!
Return To Work Program Explained
A return to work program (a.k.a. RTW program) is a written plan created by an employer to get injured workers back to work as soon as they’re medically able. It has two goals: to allow workers to be productive as they recover from an on-the-job injury and to help businesses reduce their workers’ compensation costs. A return to work program offers benefits to your business and your employers, which we’ll go over next.
Why Return To Work Programs Are Good for Employers
A return to work program can be a game-changer for your company, and there are tons of benefits that you might not immediately think about. Here are some of the top ones:
- You don’t have to recruit replacements. Like we’ve been saying over and over, an RTW program encourages injured workers to return to the workplace promptly, which can help you avoid the cost and hassle of recruiting replacements.
- Your productivity will improve. Injured workers who return to the workplace are more productive than they would be if they remained at home, even if they’re doing light-duty work.
- Your workers’ compensation insurance costs will be lower. The sooner injured employees can return to work, the less they’ll collect in disability benefits. Smaller workers’ compensation claims mean lower workers’ comp costs for your business.
- You’ll help build employee morale. A key element of an effective RTW program is frequent communication with workers from the moment they’re injured until they return to work. Open communication helps foster good relationships with workers and improves employee morale.
Why Return To Work Programs Are Good for Employees
Just like a return to work program can benefit your company, it can also really help employees. Here’s how:
- They won’t be so isolated. Injured workers who remain at home throughout their recovery may feel isolated and depressed. When an employee returns to the workplace sooner, they get back those important social connections with their coworkers.
- They start getting their full pay sooner. When injured workers collect disability payments, they receive only a portion of their full wages. Once employees return to the workplace, they can regain their full pay.
- They keep their skills up. Skills decline if they aren’t being used. By going back to work sooner, employees can retain their skills.
How to Create a Return To Work Program
Now that you know why an RTW is so great for your company, how do you go about making one? You’ll want to make a procedure your staff can follow each time a worker is hurt on the job.
The process should begin at the time of the injury and end when the worker is back at their regular job. Don’t worry, you won’t have to think it all up on your own. Here are all the steps an RTW program can include:
- Respond to the Injury. Make sure your worker gets medical care right away. Provide them with a workers’ comp claim form. Explain how your RTW program works and how it benefits them.
- Maintain communication. Check in with your team member frequently as they recuperate and let them know they’re a valued employee. Get regular progress reports from their medical providers. This is important because your employee’s doctor will decide when they can return to work and what accommodations they’ll need (if any).
- Identify essential job functions. According to federal regulations, you have to let an injured worker return to their regular job if they can perform the basic functions of that job, with or without an accommodation. So you’ll need to figure out just what those functions are in the first place. For example, if you have a full-time employee who hurt their knee on the job, but most of what they do is running payroll–including hand-delivering paychecks–you may decide that last part isn’t really essential. They can just send out paychecks in the mail or via email. In that case, they can come back to work. So figuring out what exactly is essential can help everyone know if an employee is ready to be back in action.
- Make accommodations if a worker needs them. While some injured workers may be able to return to their regular job right away, others may need an accommodation or adjustments to the work environment. What’s more, you’re actually required by the government to make these accommodations as long as they’re reasonable (i.e., they won’t cause any major hardship or loss of revenue for your business). A reasonable accommodation may be a piece of equipment, a different procedure, or a physical change to the workplace. Examples are a sit-stand desk, a part-time work schedule, voice-to-text software, and a wheelchair-accessible workstation. Work together to decide which accommodation will work best for your team member and their job duties.
- Offer alternative work. Some injured workers may be unable to perform their regular job, even with an accommodation, but may be able to do light-duty work. While the government doesn’t require you to give them alternative work, it’s in everyone’s best interest to do so—for all the reasons we discussed up top. Assign them a job that meets their doctor’s approval and get them back into the routine of working.
- Monitor their progress. Keep in touch with the worker and their doctor so you can monitor the worker’s progress as they recuperate. As they improve, they may not need as much support.
- And monitor the progress of your program. You should review your program every few years to determine how many workers have participated in the program and whether your staff followed proper procedures.
Who Should Be in Charge of your Return To Work Program?
Once you’ve created a process for handling injuries, it can’t just sit on the sidelines. But it may very well do that if no one is in charge of the program. That’s why we suggest assigning roles to staff members.
The most important role is your Return To Work Coordinator. They can come up with a start date to implement the program. They’ll oversee the whole thing too. Your RTW Coordinator should be a trusted employee who has good administrative and people skills.
Next, decide who’ll perform each of the six steps outlined above. For example, supervisors might be responsible for ensuring injured workers get medical care, while human resources can provide claim forms and explain how the RTW program works. Department heads might perform the functions outlined under items 2 and 3.
Where to Get More Help
You might want to do a deeper dive into creating an RTW program. Thankfully, there are tons of resources to help you do just that. Here are some of the top ones:
- Your Workers' Comp Insurer. Many insurers offer assistance with setting up a program. An example is Hanover Insurance, which provides a handbook, a checklist, and forms you can use to create your own RTW program.
- Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Part of the Department of Labor, ODEP offers a toolkit for employers on how to keep injured workers on the job.
- Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN is a free service ODEP offers to employers. You can use JAN to learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act (i.e., ADA, which requires you to make those necessary accommodations) and to get help choosing which accommodations make sense.
- Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE). Part of UC Berkeley, the IRLE provides a handbook for California employers called Helping Injured Employees Return to Work.
- State Workers’ Comp Boards. Some state workers’ comp boards provide guidance on setting up an RTW program. Examples are Texas and New York.
Keep Team Members and Reduce Claims with an RTW Program
A return to work program is a sign that you care about your workers. By getting injured workers back to the workplace sooner, you can improve employee morale, retain valued team members, and reduce the size of workers’ comp claims.
So now that you know why an RTW program is so important and the steps involved in implementing one—all that’s left to do? Write it down and share it with your team so everyone is on the same page.