BUSINESS MANAGEMENT: Return to Work Programs Help Injured Workers

In today's economy, employers need to conserve their resources. One way businesses could save is by managing employee health and work absences, which cost an estimated 17 percent of payroll costs.

According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, Washington, D.C., three out of 10 people eligible to return to work on a given day don't because of their employer's lack of disability management. In essence, employers could cut their disability costs by as much as 30 percent if they more aggressively managed employee health and absences.

One way to effectively control work absences and workers' compensation costs is through a return to work program. Such programs allow injured and recuperating workers to slowly ease back into their normal job requirements. Instead of resuming normal tasks, a worker will assume transitional duties, which allows the employee to maintain productivity before resuming a full workload. Typically, a return to work program is limited to 90 days.

Workers' compensation insurance carriers often can help waste companies implement a return to work program by:

Establishing return to work tasks. For instance, management can work with supervisors to identify tasks they'd like to have done but never have the time to accomplish. Tasks can include organizing files or updating computer records.

Having employees identify alternative productive work. Workers should be aware of what job duties do not require strenuous work but would be helpful to the company. Management also can evaluate what services are being subcontracted out but could be brought in-house to reduce expenses.

Considering job modification before injured employees return to their former jobs. Any employee can suffer an injury. Consequently, it is important to establish how each person's job could be modified to facilitate a quick and safe return.

Allowing recovering workers to ease into the full work routine. This could include establishing temporary part-time work schedules or having regular employees work with a returning employee to accomplish tasks.

Being positive and flexible, emphasizing what the employee can accomplish. Return to work programs focus on improving an employee's recovery process and easing the transition back to work — both physically and mentally.

Keeping other employees informed and supportive of the company's efforts. Employee support is important because a return to work program may influence day-to-day tasks. It's important to communicate that everyone's contributions are vital. Stress that the same considerations would be made for each employee should they suffer an injury.

Creating incentives for supervisors to support transitional duty. To create and fund a transitional duty program, managers may need to provide incentives to encourage department managers to actively participate.

Presenting the return to work program as part of the company's benefits package. A return to work program is based on the value a company places on its employees. Employees will be impressed when they see the company's commitment.

Before an employee returns to work, managers should evaluate the work environment to ensure that the conditions support medical restrictions. Many injured employees regain their functions incrementally.

Also, acknowledge that such programs often require time and potentially some money to modify tasks or worksites. However, the associated time and costs are beneficial because they maintain morale and keep injured employees productive during recovery. Return to work programs also prevent companies from losing valuable, experienced employees.