Twelve Ways to Doom a Return to Work (RTW) Program

Twelve Ways to Doom a Return to Work (RTW) Program image
By Robert Schiller, AIC; AVP, AmTrust North America

Even in the safest environments, accidents can happen.

The best way to ensure an injured employee’s safe transition back into the workplace is with a modified duty or return to work (RTW) program.

A catalyst for recovery, an effective RTW program requires a considerable amount of planning, collaboration and diligence. In fact, anything less than a full-time commitment to its success could hurt the recovering employee, the employer and the rest of the team.

Here are 12 inactions by employers that could add insult to workplace injuries:

1. Not getting the ongoing support of the company, including leadership. A successful return to work program starts at the top and resonates with the entire organization. Without everyone buying in, the program is destined to fail.

2. Not training team members and managers in workplace disability management. A successful RTW program requires a well-trained support team. A designated program coordinator can provide training in all of the program’s components, from establishing best practices and policies to evaluating the program’s effectiveness. Even small businesses can benefit from having a designated coordinator on hand to manage the program.

3. Not clearly defining each modified role and its requirements. Each description should include all job-related tasks, the workplace environment, use of personal protective equipment and the role’s physical demands. Knowing the physical requirements of each assignment will help the employee’s treating physician choose the best option for the employee.

4. Not pairing the injured employee with an occupational health physician for evaluation and rehabilitation. Whether employed by a medical center, hospital or private practice, physicians trained in occupational medicine are the best equipped to help employees recover from work-related injuries. Working with the employee’s primary care physician, an occupational health physician can develop a personalized program designed to facilitate the recovering employee’s safe return to work.

5. Not having a stable of modified duty assignments. Even in the safest environments, workplace injuries can happen. A proactive employer will have several roles and shifts available to offer a recovering employee.

6. Not recognizing that lower back injuries are not all alike. Research has confirmed this, which means employers must not make assumptions about the recovery time for common musculoskeletal injuries including acute back pain. One study found that workers with back pain who were not offered an accommodation to facilitate their return to work within three weeks of their injury were almost twice as likely to develop a chronic disability. Consulting with an occupational health physician can help educate employers about common workplace injuries.

7. Not being accommodating. A strong RTW program is a flexible one. Offering recovering employees full- and part-time assignments with flexible hours will allow time for therapy, doctor’s appointments, rest and recovery. Additionally, rotating the assignments – if the recovery time exceeds 30 days – will help keep them engaged throughout this transitional period.

8. Not establishing a time frame for each modified work assignment. Allowing an employee to stay in a modified role beyond an agreed-upon date could result in a complacent employee. When able, the employee should resume his or her regular work. Aside from lost production, the failure to transition an employee back into his or her original role could send the wrong message to the rest of the team and lower morale.

9. Not communicating regularly with the recovering employee. Whether it’s a call home or an at-work visit, a weekly check-in conveys the employer’s concern for the employee’s well-being and keeps the employer current on the employee’s recovery progress. This is also an opportunity for the employer to share work-related news, from new hires to upcoming company events.

10. Not communicating regularly with the injured employee’s occupational health physician and primary care physician. If the employer and the employee’s treatment team are not on the same page, the recovering employee could risk aggravating the injury. Equipped with feedback from the physicians, the employer can adjust the employee’s assignment to enhance the recovery process.

11. Not re-evaluating the RTW program and all modified duty roles. The best way to improve the program is to understand what’s working – and what isn’t. Conducting regular evaluations can increase operational efficiencies and improve assignments. Honest feedback from all participants – from the injured employee to the occupational health physician – will fuel the program’s progression.

12. Not fostering a culture of health and safety. A healthy, safe workforce is usually a successful one. Reasonable workplace safety incentives range from earning an extra paid day off every quarter to monthly team pizza parties. A common mistake employers make is offering incentives that are so attractive, they become a disincentive to filing injury-related claims.


Go-To Resources

Building an effective RTW program begins with a visit to the employer’s state (WCB) website; most WCB sites have an array of good RTW resources. Another must-visit is the Department of Labor’s website. Part of the DOL, the Office of Disability Employment offers a Return to Work Toolkit equipped to help employees and employers navigate the entire process. To help prevent workplace injuries from happening, insurance providers like AmTrust Financial Services have dedicated loss control teams that will complete a comprehensive safety assessment on site.


The Right Tools for the Job

With workers’ compensation claims continuing to rise, business owners are always looking for ways to reduce injury-related claims and the costs that come with them. An ideal complement to a loss control program, a strong RTW program is well worth the investment. Unfortunately, workplace injuries happen, so it’s important that businesses protect their employees and their bottom line with the right workers’ compensation coverage.

A well-planned, well-run RTW program is a win-win for employers and their employees. The employer keeps a valuable, experienced employee while minimizing workers’ comp and turnover costs. Buoyed by a strong support network, the recovering employee will likely have a shorter, less stressful road back to good personal and financial health.

Robert Schiller is a Director of Claims for AmTrust North America, a multinational property and casualty insurer supporting the risk mitigation needs of small and medium-sized businesses. Based in Philadelphia, Robert can reached at Robert.Schiller@amtrustgroup.com.
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