Why Companies Should Have A Return To Work Program

Jan 7, 2021 | Business Insurance

One of the more experienced drivers of a courier company had a lumbar issue and had to take a rest to recuperate.  In the nearby retail store, a female employee in its customer service department is due to give birth in two month’s time.  

Considering the nature of their companies’ business and their job functions, one can assume that theirs are crucial posts. A driver, a more experienced one as such is essential to the flow of the business of the courier company he is employed with.  The mother-to-be assigned to the retail store’s customer service department is just as important as well. In both scenarios, these employees will have to eventually take a leave of absence for recuperation. The next concern is, will they be given assurance that they still have a job to return to.

What is a Return to Work (RTW) Program?

Injuries, accidents, and other medical concerns are bound to happen to anyone anytime. This is the reason why business owners are encouraged to get coverage for their employees. So that in cases like these, they will be able to get the necessary medical attention and return to work the soonest possible time. There are some cases when the employee in question could not just go back to his former post due to some valid medical reasons. Will this get him to lose his job? This is where a Return to Work or RTW Program proves essential.

The Return to Work (RTW) Program aims to reintegrate workers who have been on leave from work for some time back to the organization. It may either be due to an illness, injury, or even childbirth. Its goal is to provide temporary work for employees who need time to acclimatize with their old job due to their absence. The long absence could have rendered him with a partial or total disability and could no longer function in his or her old job.

Why is the RTW Program an Essential Component in a Business?

The RTW program actually is a tool for employers to better control the possible impact of lost productivity due to the costs of employee absences on their business. 

On the other hand, there are still some businesses that do not have an RTW program in place. Read the following and consider if your business has been experiencing any of these issues: 

  1. Giving a once “capable” employee a lower assignment under the RTW Program is like giving him a demotion. This might cause a negative effect on his morale. This might be a valid argument. However, which is more beneficial? Provide him with a “transitional” job function which will match the employee’s present health condition, or either let the employee on disability benefit and eventually give him the pink slip? 

If the “experienced driver” of the courier company for example will remain on his company’s payroll as a driver even with the lumbar injury, there will be no guarantee that he can resume doing his responsibility until he is cleared by his doctors. That will spell a loss for his company.  Unless the employee is on permanent disability, sooner or later he will have to go back to work. Since he will not be able to drive yet, his employers will likely get a replacement for him. With nothing to do, that will really ebb his morale for sure. A good RTW program can help evaluate the employees’ physical abilities and skills and how it can help the company’s productivity even with a new and lighter job assignment.

  1. We cannot give him work with his limitations.  We cannot give him work with his limitations. Again, another valid argument. However, this should be a case-to-case situation. As with many small businesses, the employees’ Knowledge, Skills, and Attitude are not necessarily matched properly against their job functions or descriptions. To be able to implement a “transition” work to those who will return to work even with the limitations, a proper inventory should be done. They can also devise special projects such as quality checks or audits like cleanliness and safety where new tasks will be made available.  

Take the case of the seasoned mechanic who was on disability benefit and was given a light work limitation. Obviously, he will not be able to do his old tasks, but he can provide supervision and mentor of new mechanics on the floor. Given his experience, we can also say that he is in a good position to make recommendations as well.  In a way, this is one good way to mentor, pass the technology, and ensure growth among the other mechanics with less experience than him. 

  1. Unemployment is a better option than returning to work in a “lighter” capacity since they will be getting higher federal supplement from the enactment of the CARES Act. Claim frauds and abuses are all too real. This is probably one of the reasons why some employers are adamant about establishing a return-to-work program for their business. The result of the CARES Act which enables employees on temporary unemployment benefits to receive around US$600 benefits, which could be higher than their regular wages.

The states however safeguard the interest of the employers as well. Employees on “leave” receiving temporary unemployment benefits who vehemently refuse to return to work may only do so if: (1) their compelling reasons are valid under the applicable state laws, and (2) they could not go back to work for the recent pandemic or COVID-19 related reasons – either they themselves or a household member has been infected with the virus and requires quarantine. 

If the employee’s refusal to report to work does not fall in any of these categories, the employers may report the incident to the state’s prevailing workforce agency. Some states in fact encourage employers to report these incidents of refusal.

There is another silver lining to the Cares Act and this is beneficial primarily to the employers. The same Act also established the PPP or the Paycheck Protection Program.

The PPP under the Small Business Act allocated a budget of US$659 Billion to help small business owners get a loan. The loan is aimed to help them retain their payroll, hire back laid-off employees, and even cover necessary overhead expenses. Employers who will reinstate their workers who cannot function remotely or online will be given an incentive (loan reduction leniency or forgiveness) for rehiring them. However, the PPP incentive does not cover the rehiring of workers who were documented to refuse to return to work. 

Some Key Points to Consider About Establishing a Return to Work Program

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

A happy and satisfied workforce is more productive. When the company actively invests in its employees’ welfare, they are likely to return the favor also as compared to those who do not. This concern will encourage them to get well sooner so they can go back to work. The reason is evident in studies made with employees who have been away from work for a long time due to injury:

  • There is a 50% chance for workers to return to work if they have been away for six months
  • The odds of an employee returning to work further decrease to 25% if he has been away for a year
  • If the recuperation period lasted for almost two years, there’s only a likelihood of 1% for the employee’s return to work

So is a Return to Work Program really important? 

The program can help create a positive impression for the company because it is a step to connect with the “missing” employee. Whether his absence is due to injury, illness, or even childbirth. This will make him feel the support of his organization and create a culture of concern among your team members. 

On top of this primary reason, the program will also encourage your organization to:

  • Be proactive. Anticipating possible worse case scenarios even before it occurs helps save on cost and encourage a sound resource and workplace management action plan.
  • Active employee participation. Keeping employees involved in different projects within the allowed medical provision.
  • Establish written policies and procedures. There is absolutely no use in repeating the mistakes over and over again. Proper documentation, making sure lessons are learned and everybody is in the loop is power.
  • Develop and implement functional job descriptions. Efficient job descriptions play a huge part in keeping a balance in work assignments, smooth work transitions, and cross-postings within the organization. This will also help a lot for temporary job assignments for employees returning to work after a hiatus due to medical emergencies. 
  • Promote leadership among team members. Everyone, especially team leaders and supervisors, is expected to support the program by observing and following policies and procedures being implemented within the organization. 
  • Honesty. Happy employees are productive, and they find joy in doing tasks that produce meaningful results. They go to work not just to pass time.
  • Interim intervention. The opportunity to learn new skills on his temporary work assignment until he recovers can give the “returning” employee something to look forward to.

Why is Return To Work Beneficial to both Employers and Employees?

An adage known as Murphy’s Law states that “If anything will go wrong, it will.” Even how much you may have prepared for it, injuries, illnesses and other unforeseen circumstances that are likely to hamper your business may happen. Why? Because it is bound to happen as Murphy’s Law said. Around 4.1 million employees in America have experienced work-related injuries each year. An estimated 1.12 million of them experienced missing an otherwise productive day due to injuries or illnesses. On average, an employee is likely to be absent from work for about a week per injury. Loss of productivity may produce a ripple effect — from low production, to lower sales until to lost profit.

Establishing a Return to Work Program: Benefits for Employers 

1. Promotes Employee Retention. When employees’ morale is high, when they feel valued in their organization, the result is oftentimes shown in their excitement about their jobs. They show genuine dedication to their organization and are zealous about their tasks.

He is confident with the knowledge that he can rely on management’s support as well as his team for his fast recovery. Thus, even if he is given an interim position to match his current condition, he will still feel valued because he can still go back to work. 

2. Cost Management. Another benefit of an RTW Plan is it can help employers forecast and reduce the financial impact of having employees leaving and coming back. A case in point is if they decide to forgo an injured worker over letting him return to work. If that happens, then they will most likely have to pay a higher premium for their Workers Compensation Policy due to a high Experience Modification Rating (EMR). This will also eventually lower their competitive score in the industry. A good plan on the other hand will encourage your employees to return to work the soonest possible time. 

3. Decrease in Employee Turnover. In 2018, the Work Institute conducted a study involving 42 million US employees on employee turnover. The result shows that one in four employees leave their jobs to join either their competitor or another organization. This is a huge concern for small businesses with limited resources. It becomes bad when the volume of the turnover in a period of time becomes too significant not to be noticed.

Some ways employee turnover can affect your business negatively include:

  • Lost revenue.  Some of your valued clients may decide to take their business to where your account managers are transferring. Those who continue doing business with you are also in danger of getting lost if they are not attended to properly. This may lead to an unsatisfactory customer service experience and you will likely lose the client’s confidence and eventually their business. If there’s no efficient succession program in place, especially to back emergency scenarios, this may surely happen.
  • Low morale. When an employee has to leave the organization, someone has to step up and take over their assignment — on top of their original workload. Oftentimes, this leads to dissatisfaction and stress on the part of the remaining employee.
  • Hiring challenges. When an organization loses its best employees, its competitive edge is also affected. A high turnover may discourage good talents from joining your team – especially if and when words, unfortunately, get around. 
  • Decreased productivity. Fewer total available manpower due to either employee resignations or incidents of injuries and the like are not too encouraging. Particularly because those who remain on board are bound to assume the slack left by the missing employee. Likewise, training replacements will also take time, resulting in added cost but lower productivity and possibly lesser quality.

4. Better Employee Relations. Generally speaking, a good compensation and benefits package is a good way to entice and retain employees. Likewise, many employees tend to stay in an organization when they feel valued and they have the opportunity to work with a great team. Another good way to encourage employees who missed work due to medical emergencies is to keep their commitment to the organization. 

Establishing a Return to Work Program:  Benefits for Employees

1. Higher Morale. It is not uncommon for people in general to lose their confidence after a long bout with injuries. If the RTW program is in place, the employee knows he can still go back to work. One department manager had to take on a clerical position after experiencing a mild stroke. When she was given a chance to return to work even in a limited capacity, this gave her hope. Being able to remain productive even with a new assignment enabled her to recover faster and prevented her from falling into depression. Further, the program also boosted her team’s morale, knowing their employer cares enough for their welfare. 

2. Keeping Them Connected. An employee normally spends around 40 hours per week at work with his colleagues. This is the reason why prolonged isolation could really cause depression. To keep him connected with the on-goings at his workplace and his team, the Return to Work Program can provide such an opportunity.

3. Financial Security. The Return to Work Program also aims to provide a sense of financial security for an “on leave” employee. It lets him know that he still has a job to return to once his “leave” is over. A typical worker on a temporary total disability is able to receive 60% of his average weekly wage only. An “absent” employee is more likely to return because the gains are better once he reports back to work at the soonest possible time.

4. Fast recovery. The RTW program can actually aid in the fast recovery process of returning employees. Being allowed to work even with the physical restrictions can help him return his body to its former strength and condition. He may also have to learn new skills while retaining or sharing his old ones for better productivity of his team. 

5. Address the Gender Pay Discrepancy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 2017, only about 15% of US workers were able to receive paid time off for any family-related concerns. This is quite alarming as the country ranked last in the list of 41 developed countries with government-supported paid time-off for new parents.

A paid parental leave is a step in improving the gender gap and pay discrepancy in your organization. It will encourage both parents to take parental leave for their children. Mothers are also assured of security that they can return to their jobs once their “leave” is over. 

Setting Up Your Company’s RTW Program

Most states require employers to provide Workers Compensation Insurance Policies for their employees. Given this basis, companies “musts” ensure that safety standards are put in place in their organizations. This is to make sure that unfortunate incidents such as work-related illnesses or injuries are minimized. Further, incidents such as these are likely to give businesses a high EMR score that will likely incur them with higher premiums.

Business owners should be proactive and start up an action plan for reintegrating employees “on leave” to their workplace at the soonest possible time. These are those who might take time off from work either because of injuries, illness, or even childbirth. You could check other resources from the Department of Labor like the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s (ODEP) Return to Work Toolkit. Your insurer could also help you make sure that your program is compliant with the following statutes: Family Medical Leave Act, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, as well as the state workers’ compensation acts. 

To help you get started, here is a sample process you may consider using to facilitate the reintegration of a returning employee to work:

Step 1:  Checking the Worker’s Status

To start facilitating claims under the Workers Compensation Policy, your employee or at least their representative/relative should inform your office about the incident as soon as possible.  Getting back to them is just as important.  We have mentioned earlier the importance of making the employee feel valued especially at this time.  By keeping in touch with them, you are updated with how they are recuperating and they are also made aware of what awaits them once they return to work. 

Step 2:  Identifying Job Functions

When an employee gets sick, the team is left with one station unmanned and production slows down. Somebody has to step up and will have to take on the extra work on top of his regular workload.  The remaining team members may also decide to distribute the workload of the employee on “time off” until he recovers, first by identifying his tasks.  A better option to this is documenting essential tasks of all employees and developing a functional job description that could be used as a cross-reference later for any transition jobs needs. 

Step 3: Determining Restrictions

As the goal of the Return to Work Program is to enable an “on leave” employee to report back to work, his current health conditions must be prioritized and considered first.  It is important that an evaluation from his treating physician must be obtained to certify whether he is fit to go back to his regular job function, or in a temporary or transitional job function that will allow restrictive activities until he fully recuperates. Either way, he can still be productive and keep his morale high. 

Step 4:  Preparing the Team

Production slows down and backlogs happen with fewer available manpower onboard – especially if the station that was left unmanned is an essential one.  The RTW program is a good way to develop both organizational and personal leadership.  As everyone is made aware of each job function, even if one of the members goes missing because of any emergency – somebody will be able to step in, even temporarily until someone can fill the gap.  However, problems may arise if the person who is supposed to claim back his station is not yet fit to do it. 

This is where cross-postings may prove to be helpful.  For one, it can help employees to learn several skills not limited to their original line of work. It can help them develop flexibility on the job.  Even better is it will also provide a “safe place” for the returning worker as he tackles an interim job until he fully recovers. In case the returning worker happens to be a more experienced employee, this will also provide him the opportunity to do coaching and make recommendations. He can still do his old function without having to move much.  Further, as teamwork is encouraged, you can already see potential leaders or supervisors on board. In hindsight, this method could also increase not just your employees’ morale and productivity but also your bottom line.

Step 6:  Offering the Return to Work Arrangement

In some cases, the “recovering” worker may not be able to go back to his old function outright either because of his current condition or it has been filled up already after his long absence.  An option is to offer him either a temporary work assignment or a special project which he could work on given his limitation. Remember: the goal is to make his return to work.

Step 7:  Offering the Return to Work Arrangement

In some cases, the “recovering” worker may not be able to go back to his old function outright either because of his current condition or it has been filled up already after his long absence.  An option is to offer him either a temporary work assignment or a special project which he could work on given his limitation. Remember: the goal is to make the employee return to work.

Step 8:  Monitoring the Worker’s Development

It is important that the “returning” worker’s development is monitored and assessed regularly.  This should also be communicated with his team to ensure that proper support on the floor is upheld.  Certain assignments may also be altered or adjusted as his condition improves. 

In Conclusion

“You will know the tree by the fruit it bears.” is a verse that speaks a lot about productivity.  How would you know that you are running an effective program like the Return to Work initiative?

One.  There should be an increase in productivity?  How? The “absent” worker gets back on the job instead of being at home and relying on welfare. 

Two.  There is an increase in employee morale. When your employees feel valued, they strive to be more productive and produce better results which are good for your bottom line.

Three. Savings.  Keeping your business is not just all about getting profits which is not going to be good at all if you are spending as much.  A lower EMR factor is equivalent to lower insurance premiums. Furthermore, a lower EMR factor also increases your company’s competitive advantage which is already an edge against your competitors.  

Lastly, the success or failure of any program boils down to communication. When expectations are clearly set and rules are agreed upon within your team, your journey is already half-won. For any other inquiries related to this program and other insurance-related concerns, please do contact us. We would love to hear from you. 


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