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Workers’ Compensation Insights

Best Practices for Return-to-Work Programs

An efficient and effective return-to-work (RTW) program can significantly reduce workers’ compensation costs for employers while improving the lives of employees by getting them back on the job following a work-related absence due to injury, illness or chronic disease.

In general, an RTW program is characterized by specific, documented organizational policies and procedures that provide guidance to supervisors and employees in managing the RTW process. This helps expedite the individual’s recovery and reintegrate them into a productive workplace. It’s achieved through various means such as referral, counseling, coordination of medical care and adjustments to the workplace or the employee’s job responsibilities.

Goals of an RTW Program

An RTW program can help employees return to work faster from a work-related injury which increases their odds of a full recovery. It also helps employers save money on workers’ compensation costs. For employees, participation in an RTW program can aid in their recovery, allowing them to resume work as they recuperate and often fostering a sense of physical and emotional progress. Prolonged absences frequently lead to employee disengagement from the workplace, with physical ailments potentially transitioning into emotional distress and longer recovery periods.

RTW Best Practices

Whether developing an RTW program for the first time or modifying an existing program, employers should follow these best practices to ensure their RTW program is effective:

  • Consider the basics. When developing an RTW program, employers should ensure it is consistent and aligned with organizational values. Employers should review state-specific laws, outline the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the program and set clear expectations.
  • Put it in writing. Employers should have their RTW policies and procedures clearly documented.
  • Establish an RTW contact person. Designate a person whom an injured employee can reach out to for any questions.
  • Inform employees. Train employees on the procedures for a workers’ compensation claim and the RTW program. Help them understand how the RTW program is a benefit to their recovery.
  • Create and implement a safety committee. Safety committees that include members of management and employee populations will help identify solutions to hazards that are causing – or could potentially cause – injuries and illnesses. Employees on this committee help provide insight into the necessary movements and weight to be lifted to complete the job.
  • Develop functional job descriptions. Employers should create job descriptions that explain the physical demands required of specific job tasks. This also includes the movements necessary for each job task. This helps employers properly place employees that are returning from a work-related injury.
  • Modify job tasks. Employers should evaluate an employee’s condition when they are returning to work from an injury. The workplace should also be evaluated for the employee while they are healing from the injury, and the environment adjusted as necessary. If an employee is not able to perform in their previous capacity, the employer should determine the employee’s skillset to see where else they can work within the company, if positions are available.
  • Develop individual plans. Employers should create personalized RTW strategies that outline the necessary actions for an employee to resume their pre-injury position. In larger organizations, this plan should be formulated collaboratively by the RTW program coordinator, the injured employee, the employee’s supervisor, the health care provider, the union representative and legal counsel, if applicable.
  • Maintain a job duty bank. Employers should have a list of jobs employees can be placed into when they have restrictions from a work-related injury. These jobs should be well planned and coordinated with doctor restrictions. This helps employers get employees back to work quicker and more efficiently.
  • Communicate. Early and frequent contact with injured workers is essential. Employers should continue to communicate with employees who have been injured during their time away from work. Communication is essential for employee morale and, of course, for passing on necessary information.
  • Integrate and coordinate with all stakeholders. Employers should avoid the silo mentality while maintaining a focus on the well-being of employees. Furthermore, RTW initiatives must have senior leadership backing to succeed.
  • Monitor, evaluate and adjust the program. Employers should establish ways to gather the important data needed to review the RTW program. Once the information is obtained, annual evaluations should be conducted and program adjustments made as necessary. 

Extended absences diminish the likelihood of employees returning to their original positions. While complex conditions may necessitate prolonged leave, experts acknowledge a culture of absence that can cause employees to remain out of work due to disengagement. Some employees may find benefits in not working, while others may become detached from their former identities, eventually losing motivation to rejoin the workforce. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate act of fraud but rather a lack of desire to return, which can exacerbate their situation, contributing to emotional or physical challenges.

Employers, on the other hand, initiate RTW programs for various reasons, such as:

  • Managing benefit costs efficiently
  • Creating a more employee-focused process
  • Bolstering managers’ ability to achieve optimal productivity

The foundational goals of an RTW program should be clearly articulated from the outset, with periodic reassessment. Some objectives may be met, prompting the need for more ambitious targets, while others may require adjustment to align with evolving corporate needs.

While all program goals hold significance, cost reduction is a prevalent objective. Savings can be realized through several mechanisms and incentives that establish and sustain an RTW program, even if the quantification of these benefits may initially pose challenges. Organizations can achieve savings through:

  • Decreased costs related to employee absence (e.g., disability, workers’ compensation)
  • Reduced expenses associated with replacement workers (e.g., training, recruitment, team dynamics)
  • Lowered medical claim costs
  • Diminished litigation expenses
  • Early detection of fraudulent claims
  • Heightened awareness of injury prevention and safety protocols
  • Enhanced employee morale, potentially leading to decreased turnover

Learn More About RTW Programs From a Workers’ Compensation Expert

A successful RTW program can provide numerous benefits to both employers and employees. To learn more, talk to the workers’ compensation professionals at VTC Insurance Group. You can reach us at 248.828.3377 or visit vtcins.com.

This blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.


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