The National Safety Council has estimated that employers annually lose 80 million work days to illnesses or injuries suffered on the job. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, in a recent year, 1.2 million workers missed an average of seven days of work due to occupational health problems. The resulting cost in lost productivity, disability benefits, and Workers Compensation premiums is enormous. However, these are costs that employers can reduce with a little creativity. Often, treating physicians will release an injured worker for return to some work duties after a relatively short period of time. Although the worker might not yet be ready to resume their former duties, they can still perform some work for the employer. To enable this to happen, the employer needs a return to work program and policy.
The idea behind return to work programs is to provide temporary jobs that (ideally) take into account an injured worker’s physical capabilities, skills, and interests. A good program encompasses several objectives:
- Addressing factors — physical, environmental, emotional, knowledge — that prevent the employee from returning to work full-time.
- Focusing on what the employee can do rather than what they cannot do.
- Easing the transition from temporary work assignments to full-time regular work.
- Maintaining productivity by decreasing the number of lost work days.
- Improving the employee’s morale and increasing incentives for them to return to work and stay there.
The benefits to employers from return to work programs are many.
- They make it easier to retain valued employees and to obtain some production from those recovering from injuries.
- Because they help retain employees, they reduce recruiting, hiring, and training costs.
- They show the employer’s concern for the welfare of injured employees.
- They reduce the duration of disability payments to injured workers and might also reduce associated medical costs.
- They facilitate communication among the employer, the employee, and the health care provider.
- They make it more difficult for unmotivated employees to stay out of work.
- Over the long term, they reduce an employer’s Workers Compensation claim costs, making the employer more attractive to insurance companies and inviting competitive pricing.
Return to work programs also accelerate an employee’s recovery process. According to the California State Compensation Insurance Fund, half of all employees who stay out of work for six months or more never return to their former jobs. Those who are out for more than a year have only a 10% chance of returning. Most workers want to feel like they are productive and contributing. Getting an injured employee back to work early heightens those feelings of accomplishment and increases the chances that they will return to their old job eventually. It also helps to maintain job skills and reduces the adverse impact of the injury on families. A return to work policy should include the following elements:
- Employee eligibility criteria.
Provisions requiring assignment of meaningful tasks to the employee, not busy work such as “counting paperclips.”
- Descriptions of the types of duties to which an injured employee might be assigned.
- Stated parameters for the length of time a temporary assignment will last and conditions for extension.
- Provisions covering situations where an employee returns to work and subsequently has to take additional medical leave.
- Provisions for alternative work arrangements acceptable to the employer, such as telecommuting.
Workers Compensation is a major part of personnel costs for any employer. Well-executed return to work programs can help employers reduce those costs, recover productivity that would have been lost, and keep good employees happy. That’s a good outcome for everyone.