7 Steps to Building a Successful Return-To-Work Program

Injuries and illness can happen at any time, changing lives in an instant – and when that means a valued employee can’t work, morale and productivity can suffer not only for the employee but for coworkers too.
Stay-At-Work and Return-To-Work programs (often just called Return-To-Work programs) help employees who face such challenges get safely back to work as soon as they are able, protecting their earning power while helping to keep your business running smoothly. Accommodating qualified individuals with disabilities is also an employer responsibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
These 7 steps can help you establish an effective RTW program in your workplace.

1. Build a Receptive Culture

A successful RTW program begins with a workplace culture that supports employees with disabilities and their capabilities. It also requires buy-in from all team members at all levels of the organization.

To Build a RTW Culture:

  • Involve senior leadership. Having a champion at the top of your organization is an essential first step.
  • Encourage collaboration and open, honest communication among supervisors and employees. Help employees understand the importance of their job and their contributions to organizational goals, and show sincere concern to those who face difficulties. This builds trust and understanding, and lets employees know you value them and what they do.
  • Provide support services such as ergonomic equipment or flexible work schedules so that employees with a medical condition can stay at work or return to work safely and swiftly as possible, in some instances even before a full recovery.

2. Create a Policy and Process

There are many factors to consider when implementing a RTW program: your business philosophy regarding medical accommodation, how the program will be administered, and the procedures to follow when an illness or injury occurs until the employee returns to work. Put your policy and procedures down in writing, and bring in legal counsel to ensure they’re compliant with municipal, state and federal laws.

3. Assign a RTW Coordinator

Once you’ve established your procedures, you’ll need a trusted employee to carry them out. The RTW coordinator oversees the program and ensures that all involved personnel perform their assigned duties. Consider a member of your HR or medical staff, or other personnel with a solid understanding of company jobs, and personnel policies and procedures.

4. Get the Word Out

Thoroughly communicate the program’s purpose, benefits and procedures to all employees through company newsletters, email, posters and meetings. Also build RTW training into your onboarding process so new employees are aware of the program from their first day on the job.

5. Create Detailed Job Descriptions

To determine job modifications, it’s important to first establish the requirements and expectations of the position for an able-bodied employee. Create functional job descriptions for all employees that include essential duties, physical requirements, the frequency of performing various functions and expected outcomes. The more specific the job description, the easier it will be to determine an ill or injured employee’s abilities and restrictions. If an employee has a disability, the ADA requires employers to look at accommodations to determine if an employee can perform the essential functions of a job with or without an accommodation. For this reason there is an added sense of importance to have the essential job functions documented. Once the job description is created, it is important to periodically review the role’s description to ensure it is still current.

6. Communicate

When an employee is out with an injury or illness, early and regular communication is a vital responsibility of the RTW coordinator. Employees who feel connected to their employer are more likely to feel valued and to return to work sooner.
This contact can be a simple check-in to see how the employee is doing, a card to say hello, or a conversation to discuss options and potential timeframes for returning. It is important for the employee to feel the support and engage with the supervisor as well.

7. Coordinate the Employee’s Return to Work

The supervisor is usually the key to an employee’s successful return to work, but they’ll need your guidance on these important questions:
  • Who can help the supervisor coordinate the many aspects of the employee’s return to work?
  • Does the supervisor have the understanding and ability to make and implement the appropriate job accommodations? If not, who can provide the necessary expertise? This is often the return to work coordinator.
  • Are other jobs available in the company for the employee to do on an interim basis?
  • How should the supervisor answer questions that may arise about the returning employee’s “special treatment”?
Supportive communication is also a vital part of the employee’s transition back to the workplace. Both the supervisor and RTW coordinator should check in with returning employees to make sure they have what they need in their initial days back on the job and as they work their way back to full capacity. It’s important for employees to know that the workplace team values them and their abilities, even if they have been out for a period of time.
These are just some of the ways you can promote a productive work environment and help your employees stay or get back to work safely and quickly. We offer a variety of RTW consultative solutions that can help you implement a program that works best for your organization. Contact your account manager to learn more.

Stay-At-Work Strategies

Some short-term disabilities may be avoidable with simple job modifications, such as:
  • Flexible work schedules
  • Sharing job duties
  • Part-time work hours
  • Work at home
  • Adjustments to the workspace, including sit/stand desks

Modified-Duty Positions

Modified-duty positions increase the employee’s ability over time to return to their fullest functional work capacity while accommodating the disabling condition and work abilities. Examples include:
  • A reduction in work hours
  • A reduced/shortened workweek
  • A telecommuting work arrangement
  • Midday or periodic breaks from work
  • A change in the employee’s type of job
  • Ergonomic adjustments to employee’s workspace
  • Adjustment to the employee’s work location or environment
The Hartford provides consultation to assist and review existing Return-to-Work programs and offer guidance in program development. Our services are available to assist in creative effective programs and strategies to encourage employee support and productivity and to assist employers with their responsibilities with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
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The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., (NYSE: HIG) operates through its subsidiaries, including underwriting companies Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Company and Hartford Fire Insurance Company, under the brand name, The Hartford®, and is headquartered at One Hartford Plaza, Hartford, CT 06155. For additional details, please read The Hartford’s legal notice at www.thehartford.com.