Eight Common Return-to-work Mistakes to Avoid
One of the keys to reducing the cost of a workers’ comp claim is to get the injured worker back on the job as soon as it is physically possible without endangering their recovery. A solid, well-thought-out return-to-work (RTW) program can reduce workers’ compensation, disability and medical insurance costs, as well as strengthen morale and productivity.
More recently, RTW programs have helped protect employers from lawsuits regarding regulatory non-compliance, particularly related to the ADAAA (Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act). But there is a right way and a wrong way to return an injured worker back to the job, and many employers who wing it can end up making mistakes. Kevin Ring, director of community growth for the Institute of WorkComp Professionals, says that whether the program is an integrated occupational/non-occupational RTW or a traditional RTW, the economic and legislative landscape poses challenging issues for employers. Here are eight mistakes employers often made:
- Failure to effectively manage the increase in the number of employees covered by the ADAAA. The expanded definition of disability under the ADAAA has significantly increased the number of employees who are entitled to accommodations. The definition is so broad that some labor and employment attorneys advise not to fight whether the employee is disabled, but to engage in a dialogue to find out the limitations and discuss accommodation possibilities. As a federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) supersedes state workers’ comp laws, and therefore, its directives provide the floor-level protection for disabled individuals. State workers’ comp laws can provide more protection, but not less. Properly structured, a RTW program can decrease ADA exposure.
- Insisting employees be released to “full duty” before returning to work. Insisting on a return to full duty increases workers’ compensation costs and heightens the possibility that the injured employee will fall prey to “disability syndrome” – the failure to return to work when it is medically possible. An individual’s sense of self-worth and motivation often comes from the ability to be productive. Instead, find modified work for the injured worker who has not healed properly.
- Failure to commit the necessary budget or resources. Some employers bring employees back to work as early as possible to reduce claim costs, but are not committed to a RTW program. Without a planned transition back to full productivity, employees will not build up the tolerance to resume full job duties. Also, the plan needs to deal with potential failures; not every injured worker will return to the pre-injury occupation. The cost of implementing a program will vary depending upon industry, company size and injury history. Fortunately, your insurance carrier, agent and government agencies can usually help guide you through the process.
- Shying away from transitional assignments because the employee “may get hurt again.” Both employer and employee fear of re-injury often hampers RTW efforts. This of course is a risk, but an even greater one is having the employee stay at home and become disaffected, thereby extending absence and driving up costs. The right timeline and transitional process for an employee to return to work is best decided on a case-by-case basis. Guided by the goal of safely returning the employee to their pre-injury job, employers who work and stay in touch with the employee, the treating physician and supervisor are the most successful.
- Failure to distinguish “light duty” from “transitional work” and “reasonable accommodation.” Occupational RTW assignments are best described as transitional tasks. Limited in duration, such tasks help the injured worker return to full productivity by being progressively adjusted in line with medically documented changes in the employee’s ability. Under the ADAAA, it is permissible for an employer to reserve less physically demanding or “light-duty” jobs for those with work-related disabilities, and these jobs should be distinct from transitional tasks.
- Relying on the physician to guide the RTW process. While physicians are medical experts, they do not have essential information about workplace policies, job demands and the availability of transitional work. Also, if a physician’s training is not specifically in the treatment of occupational injuries, they may not adhere to evidence-based guidelines.
- Failing to stay focused on the goal and establish consequences. The ultimate goal of RTW is to transition workers back to their pre-injury job. Whether it’s a result of a poorly managed program, lack of knowledge or fear of violating a law, some employees remain in a reduced productivity position too long, or indefinitely. An Integrated Benefits Institute survey revealed an RTW focus on the employee’s own job, modified as necessary, ranked as the most important factor in successful RTW. Requiring mandatory participation was the second most important program feature affecting RTW success.
- Believing workers’ comp settlements resolve other liabilities. One size does not fit all. Obligations under the various laws are reconciled separately. During settlement negotiations, close coordination is necessary between the company’s legal, risk management and HR departments to ensure that each office is able to accomplish its mandate without compromising the employee’s rights.
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