Comp Clues


Case Management Relief: Tip of the Month

Return-To-Work Programs

By Julie A. Funk RN, CCM
| Date: 04/01/2002

What do they need? 
Return-to-work (RTW) programs have increased significantly over the years (dating back almost 3 generations) as a means to bring ill or injured workers back to work – and keep them working.  To design, implement, and manage these programs two components are vital: Communication and Cooperation.

These programs allow workers to ease back into the workplace after an illness or injury, with reduced tasks, physical demands, or temporary assignment elsewhere in the company.  These assignments often last no more than three months and may have a flexible work schedule to allow for medical or rehabilitative treatments.

Companies are embracing RTW programs as a means to reduce absenteeism and to improve productivity.  As for the employees, these programs enable them to remain productive and earn a salary that is in excess of the disability payments they would receive, and importantly to help maintain the relationship between employer and employee, which can become disconnected or even strained while a worker is off the job due to disability.

There are challenges, however, to implementing a RTW program, which cannot be overlooked.  For instance, an experienced production worker who is filing documents is paid far more than this temporary assignment demands.  In a unionized workplace, temporary assignments have to be found for workers that do not cross union jurisdictions or interfere with work rules.  Union representatives need to be involved once a program is implemented.  For these reasons, communication and cooperation are vital to the success of RTW programs.  Because of the various departments involved, the job of managing the RTW programs often falls to a disability manager who can act as liaison between the company and the employee and be in contact with human resources, union representatives, and medical professionals.

Under RTW programs, assignments must be made on a case-by-case basis, depending upon the jobs available, an employee’s skills, and the nature of the illness or injury.  These programs have expanded with time with a focus that includes personal medical leaves as well as worker’s compensation related injuries.

The first step in devising a RTW program is to have support from top management.  One common question asked is, what are the benefits to RTW programs.  The answer lies in productivity analysis.  When a worker is off the job, there are costs incurred such as hiring and training a replacement or paying overtime to those who must do extra.  There is also a risk of a slipped production schedule if a replacement is not hired.  The second part of the answer is the salary issue.  Even if workers receive a reduced salary, they are usually paid more than the temporary tasks demand.  One solution is to create separate funding for all RTW assignments.