5 Things You Need to Know About Early Return to Work Programs

By Sean Flavin March 31st, 2021

For companies, injured workers can represent a significant cost — both in terms of claims and lost productivity — regardless of where the injury occurs. Implementing a comprehensive early return to work program can help your company mitigate these costs and help employees recover more quickly.

To help companies understand what it takes to implement return to work programs (or improve existing ones), we invited Terry Self, Director of Captive Client Services at Gallagher Bassett, to join our weekly Risk Control Webinar series. Continue reading for an overview of his presentation and the answers to five pressing questions about early return to work programs.

Why are Early Return to Work Programs Important?

Comprehensive early return to work programs are established processes that organizations employ to treat injured employees and help them get back to work as quickly and safely as possible. It's important to note that this doesn't necessarily mean returning an employee to 100 percent of the job they were doing before the injury.

“Part of a return-to-work program is figuring out what employees are capable of doing,” said Self. “Return to work programs aren’t focused on what keeps employees from doing their jobs but what jobs they can accomplish and how they can be more productive in the short and long term.”

What Impact Do Successful Programs Have on Costs?

Implementing comprehensive programs focused on helping injured workers recover can significantly reduce lost time and workers’ compensation (WC) claim costs. Here are a few stats from Self’s presentation to show just how much impact lost time has on WC costs:

  • Lost time from work makes up 52 percent of WC claim costs.
  • Attorney representation increases with extended lost time from work and equals a 15 to 20 percent increase in claim costs.
  • The average duration of care is 52 days for non-work-related cases compared to 207 days for job-related injuries.

Return to work programs can also help address hidden costs of claims, which according to Self, could be up to four times more than the line item costs thanks to expenses like:

  • Investigation time
  • Administrative time
  • Production costs
  • Morale
  • Hiring costs
  • Training costs
  • Lost sales
  • Added work for others

What are the Benefits of Early Return to Work Programs?

Self covered several benefits that organizations with established return to work programs enjoy, including:

  • Cost savings — Lower medical expenses and more productive employees.
  • Motivation — Statistically, the longer time employees are off from work, the less likely they are to return.
  • Productivity — Working employees reduce the need for temporary help or increased workloads for co-workers.
  • Engagement — Working employees are connected to their environment and colleagues.
  • Loyalty — Working employees have a greater allegiance to their employer, feel appreciated.
  • Quicker returns — Employers with established programs save an average of ~30 percent lost time.

What Do Return to Work Programs Look Like?

The structure of early return to work programs can vary across organizations. While most companies with a return to work program share the common goal of reducing WC costs, the companies that do it best start with a more personal priority.

“Best-in-class programs focus on taking care of the employee,” said Self. “The number one thing you can do to lower WC costs in your organization — and it costs nothing — is to care about the employees.”

According to Self, the top-performing companies infuse caring about employees into their culture and make return to work programs part of a more holistic approach to treating injuries. To showcase how successful companies treat employees, Self pointed to a study of more than 1,000 injured workers. The study developed the following profile of workers who were most likely to be satisfied with their employers’ approach:

  • Had prior communication from their employer about WC.
  • Received medical treatment the same day as the incident.
  • Employer arranged or escorted worker to doctor.
  • Doctor set expectations for recovery and how the injury would affect the worker.
  • Had enough information about WC, medical condition, and how to speed recovery.
  • Manager and co-workers stayed in touch during recovery.
  • The employer believed the injury was genuine.
  • The employer had an established return to work program.
  • Had a modified job environment until fully recovered.

How Can My Company Implement an Effective Program?

If your company is interested in implementing an early return to work program (or improving your current processes), Self shared the following tips to help guide you through the process.

Before a Workplace Injury Occurs:

  • Evaluate your organization’s current position on early return to work and historical costs.
  • Develop a formal program with written guidelines and policy language for early return to work and coordinate lost time tracking and transitional duty assignments.
  • Develop job descriptions inclusive of physical job demands.
  • Provide local occupational clinics with job descriptions and make sure these clinics know your company's commitment to early return to work.
  • Assign a centralized resource to assist your organization with all aspects of your program.
  • Communicate the program with all existing employees and incorporate it into new-hire orientation.
  • Incorporate the program into all injury/claim forms.
  • Develop a modified duty job bank for use as needed.
  • Create management reports to track lost time days paid and associated costs and distribute monthly.

Following a Work-related Injury:

  • Initiate clear, consistent, and empathetic communication with your injured employee focused on their “care.”
  • Provide the treating doctor with the employee’s position description.
  • Match the employee’s restrictions to an available position/job tasks — if the employee can't return to normal position, this is an opportunity to utilize that modified duty job bank described above.
    • Verbally offer the employee a modified duty position that matches the specific work restrictions given by the doctor.
    • If the employee refuses to accept a verbal offer of modified duty, follow up with a written offer and send this “certified mail return receipt requested” immediately.
  • Communicate all activities with your claim representative.

When the Employee Returns to Work:

  • Meet with the employee and explain the modified duty position — specifically, how long it will last and the pay rate.
  • Summarize the specific work restrictions and that the employee is not expected to exceed them.
  • Meet with the employee’s supervisor to ensure a clear understanding of the work restrictions.
  • Throughout the modified duty process, keep track of medical appointments and review the employee's periodic medical updates.

About the Webinar

This presentation was part of CRI’s Risk Control Webinar Series — weekly installments of webinars to educate the group captive members we work with on topics like workplace safety, organizational leadership, and company performance. The thoughts and opinions expressed in these webinars are those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect CRI’s positions on any of the above topics.

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