Developing an Effective Return to Work Program

By: Melanie D. Booth

Developing an Effective Return to Work Program

An effective Return to Work (RTW) program is important to support employees who have faced an illness or injury. The program is intended to help employees who want to work in some capacity during their recovery phase. This would include working in a different capacity than their usual work duties, such as in a temporary or limited role. Of course, there is a benefit to employers in facilitating early re-entry to the workforce after an employee’s injury to avoid longer term absences and the associated costs.

In this blog post, we outline some steps for employers on how to develop such a program. For legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances, please contact us.

Develop a stay at work/return to work (RTW) policy

The first step that you can take is to create a Stay at Work/Return to Work policy. You should consider the injuries that are to be covered by the policy, including work-related (WorkSafeBC), non-work related (sporting injuries, MVA, slips and falls, and other STD and LTD claims) and other clauses. For each of the positions within the company, you can prepare a physical job demand analysis. In addition, it is recommended that you create an Occupational Fitness Assessment form for employees to provide to their medical provider (GP) to assess their ability to work with more specificity. A Weekly Assessment Form will allow you to monitor the employee’s progress on a weekly basis. There should be a position/job role for a RTW coordinator at your company to facilitate the program with interaction from supervisors and management. It is important that you educate and train staff and management regarding the RTW policy and plan.

Communicate the policy to staff

You should communicate this RTW policy and plan to staff through various channels, so that they are fully aware of the policy. Orientation, staff/department meetings, and tool box talks can help spread the message through the workplace. One-on-one meetings between employees and the managers can also help. Newsletters, notes on pay stubs, and posters/memos on bulletin boards can raise awareness. Sending an email about the policy and putting it on the website can also be effective.

Once an employee notifies the employer they have an injury and that they are unable to work

Once you have been informed by the employee that they have suffered an injury and they are unable to work, you should communicate with them regarding the reason for their absence. It is a good idea for the supervisor to take notes of this conversation. You should consider whether a modified work schedule is appropriate and then coordinate with the RTW coordinator and Human Resources accordingly. The RTW coordinator should provide the employee with a letter/written notice that modified work is available and reasonable accommodation will be made. An employer’s duty to accommodate includes multiple aspects and legal advice should be sought for further information.

It is recommended that the RTW coordinator provide an Occupational Fitness Assessment form and Job Demand Analysis form to the employee for their GP to complete to assess their ability to return to work. The RTW coordinator should be the continuous source of follow-up with the employee. Weekly follow-ups ensure that documents are completed and that the employer stays in the loop. A Weekly Assessment Form can be used to record follow up communications with the employee.

The RTW coordinator would then review the completed documentation and determine the appropriate Return to Work position for the employee. This step may require further consultation with the GP, physiotherapist, other specialists or an independent medical exam (funded by the employer).

Define the RTW Plan

Defining the Return to Work plan includes setting goals and providing details on the work modifications that will be made. The modifications can include:

a) increasing frequency of breaks
b) performing pre-injury duties for half days only
c) change of shift
d) different start/end times
e) varying the hours of work
f) job rotation
g) tele-work/work at home
h) allowing time away for medical appointments
i) not performing duties requiring a specific action for a specified period of time
j) assistance with heavy lifting from fellow co-workers (time limited)
k) ergonomic changes to the workstation
l) assistive devices (software, lift assists, etc.)
m) supply personal protective equipment over and above what is required by WorkSafeBC

You can consider assignment of other duties not originally part of pre-injury duties that are permissible given the medical limitations of the employee. There can also be placement in another position.

The timeframe for progress and restrictions and a follow up schedule should also be included in the RTW plan.

Managing resistance by employee to the RTW plan

If the employee does not agree with the RTW plan, you should consider the company’s HR policies, applicable legislation and the medical information on file to formulate an appropriate plan accepted by the employee, RTW coordinator and medical treaters. If the employee refuses to complete the job that is being offered despite medical ability to do so, you should seek legal advice before discontinuing the employee’s employment.

Effective communication of the plan and support by management, supervisors and first aid attendants is crucial to ensure that the RTW plan is implemented. This framework will need to be set up prior to a work place injury.

RTW coordinator to evaluate success of RTW plan

After implementing the Return to Work plan, the RTW coordinator should assess and evaluate how successful the plan has been. It is important to keep statistics and details on the injuries. This should include description and frequency of injuries, as well as the injury severity rates. The number of RTW plans initiated and their results should also be noted down and evaluated. You should also look at the methods of communication and timeframes, education and training scheduled, and preventative programs initiated.

Managing workplace injuries

For workplace injuries, consider each decision made by WorkSafeBC and seek legal advice immediately as timelines for appeal are short. They can be 90 days or less, depending on the decision. You should consider defending against causation at the outset, if applicable, and seek legal advice regarding the defense and investigation of claims early on. Where an employee has pre-existing injuries and/or conditions that may protract their workplace injury or disability, review any relief of costs decision from WorkSafeBC closely with legal advice to help minimize claims costs.

If you are an employer seeking advice on developing an effective Return to Work program or other workplace law matters, the Workplace Law Practice Group at Kane Shannon Weiler LLP would be pleased to speak with you. Please contact us at mdb@ksw.bc.ca or 604-591-7321.