It may sound alarming but it’s reality that almost all employees of a company will, at some point in their career, either be injured or contract an illness of some kind. The way their employer reacts to and handles that leave of absence, as well as their return to work, will speak volumes. Studies have shown that employees feel more valued and want to work harder when they know their leader is in their corner and wants them back as soon as possible.
Establishing a solid, realistic and fair return-to-work program is extremely important for business owners. First and foremost, there are some legal considerations to comply with. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have guidelines in place to protect employees from losing their job if they are unable to perform, given their disability or injury. These, along with state non-discrimination laws, require that employers provide reasonable accommodations for employees returning to work but unable to perform at the same level they did prior to their injury or illness. Two important things for business owners to consider here are:
1. An employer cannot refuse the employee’s return to work unless they pose as a “direct threat”.
2. The fact that an injury or illness occurred does not necessarily mean they can no longer do their job, assuming they are not a “’direct threat”.
Deeming an employee able to return to work, either in their pre-injury/illness capacity or a different position, may fall on the employer’s own discretion, which can be very difficult. The most commonly advised strategy for business owners in this position is to consult with the physician releasing the employee to work, get legal guidance if it’s questionable, and have a plan in writing that is agreed upon with the employee. The goal is to bring the employee back in to the work force safely and in a way that is productive for themselves, the rest of the team and the company as a whole.
Developing a return-to-work program that will apply to any position is the key here. It will keep things organized, efficient and consistent. Here are a few tips in creating a return-to-work plan:
• Define which employees or positions this program applies to
• Document the job duties of each position in the company
• Reporting process — to whom, frequency of reporting, and if advance notification is needed
• Medical evaluation documentation and use of a medical provider process
• How physical limitations will be assessed for reasonable accommodations
• Process for limited duty or transitional assignments to bring employees back sooner than later
• Consequences if an employee refuses to participate in the return-to-work program
Good and open communication throughout will undoubtedly make this program a success. Don’t forget the details though… it’s more than just checking in:
• Date of injury/initial clinic visit
• Physician status reports and follow-up visits
• Contact between employee and manager or HR (phone calls, emails, etc.)
• Interactive process to determine potential reasonable accommodations
• Written transitional duty offer letter
• Acceptance/refusal of or modified transitional duty agreement
A great way to keep all of this together and organized is in a return-to-work kit or section of your employee handbook. Nothing shows more support from an employer than being there for your team in their time of need and helping them get back on their feet to be an asset to the company.