At some point organizations will deal with employees going on leave for various reasons. Successful return to work programs help injured or disabled employees maintain their productivity while they are recovering. Read on to learn more.


No matter the size of your organization, there’s about a 99% chance at some point dealing with employees going on leave. Most HR professionals are well-versed on the logistics of what to do when an employee is on short- or long-term disability — but what sort of culture do you have in place that encourages and supports them with a return to work (RTW)? Developing a positive and open RTW culture benefits not only the organization but the employee and their teams as well.

An effective RTW program helps an injured or disabled employee maintain productivity while recuperating, protecting their earning power and boosting an organization’s output. There also are more intangible benefits including the mental health of the employee (helping them feel valued), and the perception by other team members that the organization values everyone’s work.

See also: Center Stage…Do You Have an Employer Return to Work Program?

Some other benefits of an RTW program can include improvement of short-term disability claims, improvement of compliance and reduction of employer costs (replacing a team member can cost anywhere from half to twice that employee’s salary, so doing everything you can to keep them is a wise investment).

Some of these may seem like common sense, but I’m continually surprised how many (even large) organizations don’t have an established RTW program. Here are eight critical elements of a successful program.

1. Support from company leadership.

No change will occur if you don’t have buy-in and support at the top. Make the case for a defined RTW program and explain the key benefits to leadership. Know what’s driving your existing absences: Is it musculoskeletal or circulatory? What’s the average length of absence? How many transition from STD to LTD? Come in with some of this baseline data and make the case for an RTW program. Having a return to work champion on the senior leadership team is essential to the program’s success.

2. Have a written policy and process.

There are many considerations when developing an RTW program including how it’s being administered, how employees learn more and engage with HR once out, and when they need to notify the company. Unless you have these policies in place, nobody will be held accountable. This also is an important time to bring in your legal consultation to assure you’re compliant with current company policies and municipal, state and federal laws.

3. Establish a return to work culture.

Once you have leadership support, make your RTW program just like any other championed within the organization. Develop clear messaging about what it means to employees, how they can get more information when they need it, steps for engaging with an RTW specialist and other key advantages. Then, disseminate this information through all appropriate channels including e-newsletters, intranet, brochures, posters and meetings.

4. Train your team members.

Educate managers on why an RTW program is important, why they should get behind it, how it impacts the organization, and what it means for both them and the returning employee. This training can be built into your onboarding process so that all new employees are made aware at day one. Having core messaging about the program and clear policies and procedures will assure everyone is singing from the same hymnbook.

5. Establish an RTW coordinator.

Depending on the size of your organization, this may be a part-time or full-time role. It’s essentially establishing someone as the day-to-day owner of work and could be a nurse, benefits coordinator or someone from your HR team. This person will need to work with various department managers (some who may at times be difficult) to define RTW roles, track compliance and measure success.

6. Create detailed job descriptions.

It’s important to have functional job descriptions for all employees which include physical requirements and essential duties. Often, when employees have an RTW, there are specific lifting, sitting or standing requirements. These are all compliance issues that the EEOC will pay close attention to.

7. Create modified duty options.

Some of the strongest pushback I get is from managers who claim there’s no way to modify an employee’s duties. However, when asked about back-burner projects they haven’t gotten to, the same manager will quickly come back with 5-10 tasks. Often, it’s a combination of that employee’s existing duties and some of these special projects which make a perfectly modified list of responsibilities.

8. Establish evaluation metrics.

Senior leaders love metrics, so if you can benchmark on the front end how many people are out and what that equates to in lost time/productivity, you can easily begin to evaluate what having an RTW program brings to the organization. Make your RTW coordinator responsible for tracking this information and share it with not only senior leadership but also managers and even team members. This will help reinforce the importance of the program to everyone.
SOURCE: Ledford, M. (2 October 2018) “8 keys to developing a successful return to work program” (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/8-keys-to-developing-a-successful-return-to-work-program