Workers Compensation

Rethinking Return-to-Work (Part 2)

10/16/2019 | Ray Gage

In the first part of Rethinking Return-to-Workwe looked at the costs associated with lost-time or days away from work.  We discussed everything from hard costs, whether they are covered by insurance or not, to soft costs, that may or may not show up on a Profit & Loss Statement.

If an employer has implemented a Return-to-Work program, odds are it is due to their insurance carrier either asking them to provide a copy or requiring them to have a program in place in order to extend a work comp policy or at least a better premium on their work comp policy.  Very few employers properly utilize the program they have because they simply don’t know how and just “wing it” if they have an employee injury where they don’t think they can accommodate the doctor’s restrictions. 

This isn’t any different than the other things we have discussed so far in Conquering Zero in that, once again, the employer has the ability to control this process even though they’ve been coached through the years that there isn’t much of anything they can do because the rules and rates are set by the state and the insurance carriers have to operate by those rules and charge those rates.  It’s no wonder so many employers’ eyes glaze over when they try to think about returning injured employees to work. 

Before we get into anything else, let’s talk about changing the perspective on return-to-work by simply calling it something different.  The word “return” by itself is a problem in that it implies you must go somewhere else.  If you didn’t leave, you couldn’t “return”, this is not a time to pack your bags for vacation.  With the goal with any workplace injury to keep the employee at work in a productive role except for required medical visits, there are other options. 

What is the problem with “Return-to-Work” as a concept?  Why does it matter what you call the program?  Great questions!  Consider some of the differences in perception: 

Return-to-Work Stay-at-Work/Accommodated Work
Injury = Perceived "Vacation" Injury = Alternative Work Mandatory
Employee feels expendable Employee feels valued
Decrease in productivity  Relevant work supporting coworkers
Managed by insurance companies  Driven by employer 

While some like Stay-at-Work or Recover-at-Work; I recommend calling it your Accommodated Work Program for a couple of reasons.  First, the primary goal of any employer dealing with an injured employee should be to keep them working by accommodating any restrictions given by the treating medical provider.  Second, your program should be more robust and deal with any injury you are required to accommodate, whether it is a workplace injury or another type of injury that falls under the ADA or FMLA.   

Let’s pause here for a minute.  Most employers with employee benefit plans understand that a workplace injury can trigger COBRA if an employee is out of work long enough, but they don’t think about the potential for either or both ADA and FMLA to come into play with a workplace injury.  Do you know what the employee count triggers are for these programs?  For FMLA, it is 50 or more employees.  For the ADA, it is 15 or more employees.  However, for the ADA, each state can have a lower trigger.  For example, in Indiana, the Civil Rights Law lowers the trigger to 6 or more employees. 

Now that we know a little more about the costs associated with days away from work along with why we need to be more holistic in our thinking about accommodating restrictions, let’s look at who benefits from keeping employees at work in a productive capacity. 

First, here are some of the benefits for the employer: 

  • Reduce claim cost, likelihood of litigation, fraud and subsequent claims 
  • Reduce absences, lost productivity, overtime, recruiting and training cost 
  • Retain valued workers and improve employee relations and morale 
  • Demonstrate consistent, fair practices and compliance with federal regulations 
  • Improve communication with employee and have more control over claim direction 

Second, here are some of the benefits to the employee: 

  • Increase morale and feeling of connection 
  • Shift focus of recovery from “can’t do” to “can do”  
  • Enjoy better recovery outcomes 
  • Retain full earning capacity 
  • Maintain sense of security and stability 
  • Retain benefits and employment status 

At the end of the day, everyone benefits!  How many other programs do you administer where that can be said?  Come back next week for the final installment in Rethinking Return-to-Work where we will talk about how to implement the program along with some creative ideas on looking at accommodating restrictions.

About the Author:

Ray Gage, Director of WalkerHughes Allen County Office, is a Master Work Comp Advisor who's passion and life's work is to help sophisticated, process-oriented businesses create safe, healthy, productive workplaces, and as a result, more profitable firms.  For more information on Automate Safety along with the other tools offered by WalkerHughes to assist in your quest for Zero Injuries, contact Ray at or by phone at 260-627-3641 with any questions or inquiries.