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Done well, return to work (RTW) programs can significantly benefit both employers and injured employees.

Such programs help employers better control the total impact and cost of workers being away from work, and strengthen employee engagement by helping individuals through potentially uncertain times. They also help employees more quickly recover physically and financially.

The most effective RTW programs share nine best practices, which fall into two categories: what employers can do ahead of an injury and the steps they can take following one.

By understanding these lessons, employers — working with their agents or brokers and third-party administrators (TPA) and insurers — can maximize the benefits of RTW.

Building the RTW infrastructure before injuries occur


There are four key steps an employer can take to lay the foundation for effective return to work:

  • Develop a formal return to work program. Clearly define the company’s RTW goals, establish a clear and consistent policy, communicate that policy throughout the company, and regularly measure and report performance. Consider how that program might help beyond workers’ compensation, such as in returning employees out on short-term and long-term disability or for non-work-related medical issues.
  • Identify potential temporary light-duty assignments for each appropriate job category. Some companies may not be able to return injured employees to temporary positions. If so, work with your TPA or insurer to identify potential temporary light-duty assignments in local non-profit organizations and volunteer sites (see side bar).
  • Communicate the company’s RTW policy throughout the company to set employee expectations. Train supervisors not only on the process, but on the best ways to communicate. A Liberty Mutual study found that employees reporting to supervisors with proactive, open communication styles were away from work less often and for shorter times.
  • Partner with a TPA or insurer who understands the importance of RTW and manages it within the claims process. Can they identify the small number of claims with psychological and social issues that can lead to longer absence and hinder RTW? Do they have the professional resources to address these issues and effectively coordinate RTW?

Following an injury


The most effective RTW programs share five best practices once an employee is injured. At that point, an employer should expect its TPA or insurer to:

  • Engage the injured worker. Filing a workers’ compensation claim can be a confusing and tense process. Quickly educating the injured worker on the workers’ compensation process and status of the claim is key to engaging the claimant along the way, including RTW. For example, Liberty Mutual has seen tremendous value in sending claimants a custom video summarizing what they can expect and providing key claim information such as their claim number and contact information for their dedicated claims manager
  •  Screen for the “yellow flags” shown to predict longer recovery and delayed return. There may be psychological and social issues associated with claimants who catastrophize an injury and pain, have tense relationships with their employer, or fear re-injury, for example. Should any of these be detected, the TPA or insurer should quickly assign the resources needed to address those specific issues.
  •  Help the treating physician understand the injured employee’s job duties and the willingness of the employer to return that individual to light duty. A vocational rehabilitation specialist should work with the employer, injured worker and treating physician to develop a formal RTW plan based on the claimant’s injury, limitations, restrictions, return date and job requirements.
  •  Help the employer understand the value of ongoing communication with injured employees, such as letting workers know they are welcome back and discussing the formal RTW plan.
  •  Monitor progress when the injured employee comes back to work. An employer should expect the TPA or insurer to track the employee’s progress in the temporary assignment, suggest reasonable accommodations that could allow that worker to return to the former position, and identify and resolve any issues that arise as the employee returns.

Employers should partner with agents or brokers and insurers or TPAs to build effective RTW programs based on these nine best practices. Doing so will help employers capture all the value of RTW programs for both the company and injured employees.