The importance of return to work (RTW) programs is undisputed. In fact, 92% of employers agree that RTW programs after a disability or injury help reduce their risk exposure, but more importantly, help employees recover. RTW is also likely required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because employers cannot require a 100% healed policy – demanding the employee have no medical restrictions – before allowing an employee to return to work. The rapidly changing environment has left nearly half of all HR professionals struggling to understand what counts as a “reasonable accommodation” or an “undue hardship” as required under workplace accommodation laws.
As employers fight for talent amid the ongoing Great Realignment, reexamining your RTW policies and procedures will help. The most important addition post-pandemic? The ability to be empathetic with employees.
As staff continue to return to the workplace post-injury and/or post-pandemic, employers must place an increased value on so-called “soft skills” like employee empathy. The line between personal and professional remains blurred and employees look for a continued sense of care from their colleagues and employers. Ultimately, you want your valued employee back – healthy and happy.
Here are five basic strategies to implement when updating your RTW program to meet current employee expectations:
1. Engagement before, during, and post-disability. A strong RTW program looks beyond employees out on leave and engages the entire workforce on the importance of physical and psychological safety. Considered pre-engagement, this type of action is geared toward making the employee feel valued and respected on a day-to-day basis through consistent and transparent communication, which in turn will inspire positive action toward the organization.
TIP: Extending that engagement through a disability claim includes facilitating open and private communication channels, establishing appropriate accommodations for their RTW, and continuing the cycle of engagement after an employee is deemed healthy.
2. Know relevant laws to mitigate legal risks. There are two federal laws that could impact your organization’s response to an employee illness or injury: the ADA and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities and further requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for qualified employees with a disability, which could include work schedule modifications. The FMLA also requires employers to consider a reduced schedule as well as maintain an employee’s health insurance benefits during medical leave and restore them to the same or equivalent working position upon their return.
TIP: Consider what reasonable accommodations your company can make for a returning employee. That could include work schedule changes, or workstation changes, for example.
3. Collect fitness-for-duty certification. The FMLA allows you to require fitness-for-duty certification to ensure the employee can safely return to work and handle the duties of their position. This certification is often confirmation from the employee’s health care provider that they can resume work.
TIP: To ensure a compliant fitness-for-duty process, you should:
- Document all fitness-for-duty policies
- Apply policies across all employee groups in similar situations
- Provide written and advance notice of all policies, procedures, and essential job functions to impacted employees
4. Facilitate RTW/reinstatement as soon as possible. Under the FMLA, an employee must be reinstated immediately to their former position or one equivalent in pay, benefits, schedule, and location once they report back to duty. If your organization requires a fitness-for-duty certification, it must be provided before reinstatement.
TIP: Consider including workplace accommodation questions and the job description in your RTW or fitness-for-duty process so that the employee’s health care provider can understand the employee’s job functions and consider possible accommodations to assist the employee with any function during their recovery as they return to work.
5. Provide an interactive accommodation process with a friendly atmosphere. If an employee cannot perform essential functions of the job after experiencing an illness or injury, they might request a reasonable accommodation from their employer.
TIP: If the appropriate accommodation is not obvious, make the process for determining it an interactive and collaborative between the employee and employer.
A strong RTW strategy must be included in any disability claims, leave of absence, and accommodations policy and process. To meet the needs of employees now, FINEOS recommends updating disability policies, and FMLA and accommodation administration.