What Do I Need to Know About Return to Work (RTW) Strategies?
When an employee goes off on sick leave because of illness or injury, it is not an easy time for them. Most of us enjoy the normalcy of our routines and living pain-free. Suffering with an illness or injury, or recovery from surgery is difficult for the employee as they struggle with endless medications, exercises, appointments, pain and/or discomfort and new routines. The last thing anyone wants to worry about is how they will be treated when it’s time to return to work.
Oh that this would be an easy task every time. And to complicate matters even further, it is a very different situation when trying to determine if the injury can be attributed to the work place, and one that was pre existing, or happened elsewhere. For our purposes here, we are going to set that aside.
There are times when getting the employee back to work is very straight forward – the bone has healed or the illness has run its course – and the employee is fully recovered and eager to return – and the employer and their co-workers are delighted to have them back. And there are times when the medical professionals just don’t know if or when the employee is healed and ready to return to work, to their full job responsibilities. This is often the case when the injury is to soft tissue or when it is a mental health issue. The information the employer repeatedly receives from the medical professional is that “The employee is off for x more weeks.”
When you are not getting enough specific information about the employee’s ability to return to work – when and with what accommodation – from their primary care physician, you may have to insist that the employee attend the “company” doctor. This is not a GP who is on the company payroll. This is a medical professional who you direct the employee to because you believe they have more expertise in the matter than the employee’s GP. This could be an occupational health professional, someone who specializes in the connection between the employee’s condition and what is required for success in the job. For example, the problem is with the employee’s back, and the employee must lift and carry heavy objects on a regular part of their job. The specialist can assess/evaluate the requirements of the job as well as assess/evaluate the employee’s physical abilities and determine how much of the job the employee can do, with or without additional tools or equipment. The medical professional prescribes the exact terms and conditions that the employee can return to work – in the perfect world.
Return to work strategies can involve input from several professionals. Hopefully all of them are pulling together for what is best for the employee. Sometimes there is finger pointing among them, indicating that they think someone else has the information that the employer requires. The information the employer requires includes changes to the employee’s work/responsibilities, their work station, their hours of work, the number of rest periods, the tools and/or equipment used, etc. Once clearly spelled out, it is the employer’s responsibility to determine if these strategies can be accommodated within their workplace. Sometimes the biggest challenge is getting the specifications of the return to work. It is not easy for the business to put a stake in the ground and say “This is all we can afford to do.” but that is exactly what is called for. Then the courts can decide if they agree. This is especially hard in non-profits, where their expenses are so directly tied to their often inflexible revenue. The focus has got to be getting the employee back to work or releasing them to find work elsewhere – an ugly thought but true.
There is always the question of “how do you prove undue hardship”, and does this change depending on whether this is a chronic illness, injury on the job, off the job, mental illness – it is very confusing and difficult. This just something that cannot be defined until the circumstances present. The answer to this is so specific to each case – the employee, their condition/illness and the employer’s resources, the variety of jobs within the work place….never straight forward. There are specialists – independent contractors – in this field hire or you may be able to access the expertise via your benefits plan, if applicable. For example, the employee has back pain related to a work place incident. The employee gets pregnant and that exacerbates the condition. Then on the way to a medical appointment with the “company” doctor, she’s rear-ended in a vehicle collision, further damaging her condition. In every case no matter how complex, you do your best to get the employee safely back to work, returning to full productivity if possible, accommodating them to the “point of undue hardship”, no matter what the cause/s of their illness or injury. You do your best.
Note: It is easier to bend over backwards to accommodate highly productive employees. It is harder to want to accommodate difficult employees, employees who aren’t productive enough. This is when you regret that you didn’t manage their performance, weeks, months, and years ago. Now you find yourself happy that they are out of the workforce. You hope they never return. You have a legal obligation to accommodate their return to work to the point of undue hardship. The definition of that varies from business to business. The actual cost of accommodating an employee’s return to work may be something you have not budgeted for. You will have to find the resources somewhere. The trick is to focus on the big picture – getting this employee back to work – and then vowing to do whatever you can to ensure that this doesn’t happen a second time or if it does, it goes smoothly.