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Return-to-Work Programs Boost Productivity

April 20, 2001
Related Topics: Disabilities, Featured Article
WWhen Bill, a mechanic at a large industrial company was sidelined with abroken foot, the choices were to let him stay at home and recuperate withdisability benefits or find a temporary job for him elsewhere in the company.

    Under his employer's return-to-work program, Bill was assigned temporarily towork with a group of scientists at the company, helping to catalogue scientificpapers and documents.

    Bill, who had a bachelor's degree, learned the computer program that was usedto do the cataloguing, and even came up with some improvements to the process.

    The scientists he worked with liked him so much that they offered him apermanent placement. In the end, Bill returned to his mechanic's job, but with anewfound confidence and sense of accomplishment, which contributed to him laterattaining a management position in his group.

    This is a classic success story for return-to-work programs that bringworkers back on the job after an illness or injury. Return-to-work programsallow workers to be assigned temporarily to less physically demanding duties orperform modified tasks at their regular jobs. Even though a worker may be doingsomething totally unrelated such as filing documents instead of operatingmachinery return-to-work programs allow them to remain productive and on thejob.

    "Return-to-work programs can be a win for everyone," says JannaCalkins, a California-based Certified Disability Management Specialist with 25years experience in the field. "The companies are getting productivity froma worker who would otherwise be sitting at home."

    For employees, there is the intrinsic benefit of remaining productive, whichpromotes a positive attitude and can contribute to healing. There is also a veryreal financial aspect to participating in these programs since disabilitypayments are often far less than an employee's regular salary.

    In Bill's case, "He had just purchased a new pickup truck, and he knewthat he wasn't going to be able to make the payments if he didn't participate inthe program," adds Calkins, who is also the chair of the Certification ofDisability Management Specialists Commission (CDMSC), the only nationalcertifying body for disability management specialists.

    Return-to-work programs do present challenges, including the need tocoordinate efforts and encourage cooperation across the company, from managementto the employee. The second challenge in a unionized workplace is to place illor injured workers in temporary positions that don't cross or interfere withunion jurisdictions and job classifications.

    However, unions are more apt to look favorably on return-to-work assignmentssince they are temporary in nature and do not result in the permanentdisplacement of workers. "For large employers, return-to-work needs to bepart of their collective bargaining agreements," says Neil Bennett, SectionChair of the Disability Management Section, International Association ofRehabilitation Professions (IARP).

    Another challenge for companies adopting return-to-work programs is therealization that workers on temporary assignments are often being paid far abovewhat the tasks they are performing are worth. That's why companies must lookbeyond the salary costs alone, Calkins advises, and measure the cost ofproductivity, absenteeism, and hiring and training of temporary workers againstthe short-term salary disparity. (SEE SIDEBAR)

    One potential pitfall that companies must avoid is the temptation to usereturn-to-work programs as a way of reassigning even temporarily a difficultemployee who becomes ill or injured. Using return-to-work as a means to sloughoff an employee with personality conflicts with a manager or fellow workersundermines the credibility of the program.

    "I've spent a lot of time discussing with managers the fact thatpersonnel issues don't belong in a return-to-work program," Calkins adds."That is one of the tasks that a disability manager might perform: helpingmanagers to see that they can't use return to work programs to get rid ofunwanted or problems employees, and referring them instead to human resourcesfor progressive disciplinary procedures."

    Despite the challenges, proponents of return-to-work believe that thepositives far outweigh the negatives, and these programs are catching on withemployers who want to control disability costs and reduce loss-time accidents.

    "I see employers who are very progressive. They are 'walking the talk,'by really building the return-to-work structures," notes Elizabeth Corp,the program manager for the Rehabilitation, Social Security and Appeals Programfor MetLife Disability, which offers disability insurance programs to employers.

    Low unemployment and competition for good workers has also been an incentivefor employers to implement return-to-work programs that help skilled,experienced employees remain on the job at least in some capacity.

    "With the tight labor markets, employers have been increasing theincentives to attract employees," adds Bennett. "And with increasedtechnology in the workplace, there is a lot of training that employers invest intheir employees. So keeping them at work is a good economic investment."

    Furthermore, legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)requires companies to consider just who is qualified to work and in whatcapacity. Job accommodations for ill and injured workers may help a companyestablish its guidelines under ADA requirements.

    Corp says MetLife encourages companies to adopt some form of return-to-workprogram for ill and injured workers to reduce the overall cost of disabilityprograms. "We believe that when someone files a claim with us either for ashort-term or long-term disability one of our first questions is, 'tell us aboutthe job. Tell us how this injury or illness is preventing you from returning towork'," adds Corp, who is also a Certified Disability ManagementSpecialist. "We want people to return to work. We are constantly focusingon that. We don't want the mindset of 'I'm too ill to work'."

    Even if someone can only return to work part-time or needs ongoing treatment,such as chemotherapy, return-to-work programs and job accommodations can providethat flexibility. The more an ill or injured worker is accommodated, the betterit is for overall workplace morale. Other employees see the proof that, shouldthey ever suffer an injury or illness, the company would make provisions forthem, too.

    Return-to-work programs that help employees stay productive and earn theirfull salaries also help to soothe the anger and resentment that can occur when aworker is injured on the job. "In an industrial-injury setting, theemployee may have some anger toward the employer, or some anger at being injuredthat is diffusely targeted at the employer," Bennett notes.

    Moreover, most employees want to return to work, particularly after the firstfew weeks of being home have gone by. "Most people see work in a number ofways, besides just as a means to earn income and to purchase the necessities oflife and items of interest to them," Corp notes. "It's also a socialoutlet, a place where you become stimulated with new assignments oropportunities for learning. Every day there are new interactions and challenges.Work provides structure to someone's life. When you take that away because ofillness or injury, the individual loses a part of their structuralfoundation."

    In addition, return-to-work programs also address concerns about"de-conditioning" following a worker's illness or injury. Just as anathlete who stops training is no longer in peak condition, workers who ceasedoing physically demanding tasks lose the required body strength. Returning towork with modified duties, as approved by a physician, can help an employee torecover lost strength and to build stamina.

    The key to success for return-to-work programs is communication among allparties involved. That's why administration of return-to-work programs oftenfall to disability management specialists who can act as a liaison between thecompany and the human resources department and the employee. For example, adisability management specialist could ethically work with physicians orrehabilitation professionals on behalf of the employee, whereas a humanresources person should not have access to an employee's medical records.

    Once a program is in place, companies also have to be proactive and not justreactive. That begins with job analyses performed upfront to catalogue theresponsibilities, demands and requirements of every position and jobclassification. Then, should an employee face a medical condition - job-relatedor not - there is documentation as to exactly what is physically required ofthem in the work environment.

    Bennett tells of a female employee at a glass manufacturing plant who hadlearned of medical complications related to her pregnancy. When she discussedher condition with the human resources manager, a job analysis for her positionalready existed. "The HR manager said to her, 'give this job analysis toyour doctor. Find out how long you will be able to perform this job and if youcan't, what you might be able to do'."

    Based on the job analysis, the woman was given modified tasks and thenassigned elsewhere in the company during her pregnancy. "There was no paidmedical leave at this company," Bennett added, "so staying on the jobwas very important to her."

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