Return-to-Work Programs: 5 Costly Mistakes To Avoid

return to work programs mistakes to avoid

Effective return to work (RTW) programs are absolutely critical for employers today. Whenever possible, accident prevention is the best way to reduce injury and illness costs, but your RTW program is going to be the best way to improve recovery time and manage costs when an injury does happen. It’s important to get the employee back to work as early as possible. First and foremost, you want that employee to get back to feeling valued. In addition, recall that a claim becomes lost time at eight or more days, which then triggers your claim reserve causing premiums to increase as expected losses increase. For OSHA, it’s a recordable when one or more days are missed, starting the day after the injury causing your DART rate (Days Away/Restricted or Job Transfer Rate) to increase. That’s why transitional work, and coordination with RTW programs in general, is so important. A restriction is always better than a lost time and/or days away.

An Effective Return to Work Program Benefits Employers & Workers

Research suggests that if a worker is absent from work for 20 days, they have a 70 percent chance at returning to work. If that number increases to 45 days away from the workplace, the chances of them returning lowers to 50 percent. And, if they are absent from work for 70 days, the chance of them getting back to work drops to 35 percent (2). This goes to show just how critical it is to get workers back on the job.

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Early Return to Work Programs & Your Bottom Line

When an injured employee is away from the workplace, costs are on the rise for you. Those costs can include increased premiums, lost productivity, decreased worker morale, and all the costs associated with hiring and training new workers, when needed (1). Getting them back to work as soon as possible is important in minimizing these costs. There are many benefits of an effective RTW program, including how it helps you to maintain a positive culture; it maintains productivity, huge time and resource savings, and how it reduces your workers’ comp costs. The list is long, but other top benefits include:

  • Reducing the need to train new staff
  • Reducing your re-training costs
  • Employee retention
  • Supports the ability to develop employees for a life-long career
  • Helps to reduce fraud and abuse

An effective RTW program is also a key component of your ability to manage your experience modification rate (EMR). When you’re able to get your employee back to work quickly, indemnity payments are reduced and so is your claim reserve, which is a part of how your EMR is determined. Knowing just how important this is for workers and employers, what holds many companies back from being able to set up an effective return to work process? Here we break down 6 common mistakes to avoid when it comes to developing an effective return-to-work program. Avoid these common slip-ups so that you can get your injured workers back on the job as quickly as possible.

Mistake #1: Not using detailed job descriptions

Even companies with the best intentions for workplace safety can neglect proper planning for a realistic and implementable RTW program. One of the critical components of this planning is ensure every worker has a comprehensive, detailed job description. Without detailed job descriptions in place, the health care provider will have a much more difficult time in determining when someone is truly ready to return to work. On the flip side, if job descriptions clarify what essential and supplemental job functions are, what physical activities will be required, PPE used, any special skills needed, and environmental conditions the worker will face, that process with the care team will be expedited and more accurate (3).

Mistake #2: Not being proactive enough with your communication

A lack of communication from management is one of the biggest issues in return-to-work efforts. You need to remain in constant contact with an employee who has had a claim, setting clear but caring expectations. Early communication and assistance with the injured worker is critical. Not only does it help to maintain a positive connection to the company, it can help them with the emotions (fear, worry, frustration) that come with an injury (1). With the right tools in place, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming to stay on top of the details and know when and what to communicate with the worker who is out. Make sure you maintain the positive relationship with that person you had prior to the incident. You want them to continue to be an engaged worker with the company. After all, the longer they remain off of work, the more probable the chance of having a dissatisfied employee and problems can develop in the relationship. It will be different for every company, but examples of continuous and proactive communication include: showing care about their recovery; explaining how you appreciate their work; and even asking questions to ensure that the employee has answers they need or assistance they need. You may also discuss changes that could be made in the workplace in order to get them back to work.

Mistake #3: Not showing you trust the injured worker

From the start, show that you trust the injured worker in your interactions with his/her. The most effective communication with someone who has been injured should always reflect the care, compassion, and empathy you have for him/her. “That’s what we’re responsible for, as leaders in our organization, is to provide the right environment so that everybody can excel, and so that they can go home, feel good, come back, and feel good—that is the kind of place we want to create,” explains Matt Hess, Director of HR at HGC Group of Companies, when talking about how to stay engaged with an injured worker. Hess says this mindset is so important for management when communicating with an injured worker. “Organizations can be so policy-driven that [they can] lose common sense sometimes. People fully want to be good, and people want to be brave, and if you give them enough latitude they will be,” he says.

Mistake #4: Ignoring red flags 

While you want to trust that the great majority of your employees are trustworthy, also be aware of certain red flags you don’t want to ignore. Red flags you need to be aware of include: repeat offenders; contradictions in medical notes compared to what the employee says; medical costs exceed $1,500-$2,500; an employee with extensive medical history; certain talk regarding surgery; or a repetitive claim. These are all the more reason for proactive collaboration with insurance providers and the care team involved.

Mistake #5: Leaving out key components within your RTW policy

When assisting an injured employee to help them return to work, avoid putting them in any kind of position where they could take more time than they require to get back to work, or where they could do something where they would get worse or re-injury themselves. To do so, having a policy is important, but what is in the policy is even more important. Here’s a checklist to consider, at minimum:

  1. Develop your temporary transitional work and capacity. Transitional work is one of the most effective ways to get someone back to work in the long-run. Whether it’s a modified version of their role or a separate, pre-determined list of tasks, be sure this is a core part of your process (3).
  2. Your process should include letting a preferred panel of providers know you have a policy and that you will accommodate restrictions. This list of providers should be readily accessible by workers if an injury/incident occurs. Later on, communication between the care team member and the return to work coordinator will be critical (3).
  3. Don’t make the mistake of believing you don’t have light duty work. Consider safety training or having the injured worker help with administrative tasks. Organizations like Goodwill and non-profits will gladly allow the injured worker to come and perform light duty tasks for them.
  4. Be sure the policy reflects ongoing workers’ compensation regulations, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and OSHA regulations that would impact how you proceed.

If injuries happen year after year to an employee and they refuse to participate in the transitional work program, the employee’s benefits can be denied.

Mistake #6: Not taking the necessary steps before any injury ever occurs

Remember, employees must be trained and know the policy, and what is expected of them, before any accident ever occurs. Workers need to sign the policy stating that they have been trained and that they have reviewed and understand the policy.

Effective Return to Work Programs Benefit Workers & Employers

Research has shown effective RTW programs will benefit the injured worker—and the employer. One study by Johns Hopkins Hospital saw that an effective RTW program reduced the number of lost workdays by 55 percent. Employer benefits included reduced direct costs as well as indirect costs including overtime, litigation and hiring, and training costs, to name a few (3).

Keep Up With the Details of Your Claims with iReport

iReport helps you easily track and manage the details of any claim in a centralized place. Keep incident reporting, policies and training all in one place. You can even assign a task to ensure effective communication with the employee happens throughout the claim process. Save time, save money and save lives with iReport.



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