Returning to work after an injury, illness, or workplace incident can be a hard transition, but having a comprehensive return-to-work plan makes the process easier. In addition to streamlining communication and ensuring regulatory compliance, a return-to-work plan allows you to offer a phased approach to support workplace reintegration.

Whether you’re welcoming co-workers back after a temporary closure, or an individual employee after an extended leave of absence, here’s how to create a return-to-work plan that takes individual circumstances into account to ensure a successful return.

What Is a Return-to-Work (RTW) Plan?

A return-to-work (RTW) plan is a document that outlines the process for an employee returning to work after an absence, usually due to illness, injury, or another scenario. Having a comprehensive return-to-work program in place helps employees return to work faster, while taking care to ensure their physical and mental health.

An effective return-to-work plan should specify a timeframe for the worker’s return, describe how an injured worker’s fitness for duty will be determined, and establish whether or not any reasonable adjustments will be made to their workload.

Because the nature and duration of the absence will determine the employer’s rights and obligations — as well as the employee’s health care needs — it’s important to have a return-to-work policy that can be tailored to individual circumstances.

Common Return-to-Work Scenarios

Some types of absences, such as a personal leave of absence or sabbatical, may not require a return-to-work plan, as the employee can simply step back into their role without any changes to their job tasks or work environment. Other situations can be more complex, as in the following three scenarios:

Illness or Injury

One common reason to begin the return-to-work process is because the employee is returning to work after an illness or injury. Depending on their medical condition, they may need some time to readjust to their role while they make a full recovery.

In some cases, the employee may be returning from ordinary sick leave, while in other cases, they may qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If that’s the case, you’ll need to adhere to FMLA return-to-work guidelines.

An ill or injured employee may also qualify for a workplace accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or for short-term disability leave.

Work-Related Stress

Workplace injuries and medical conditions aren’t the only reasons an employee might need to take time off work. Employees may qualify for FMLA for mental health or for ADA accommodations if they experience workplace stress or anxiety.

If an employee is returning to work from stress-related leave, they may benefit from reintegration strategies like a flexible work schedule or fewer in-person meetings.

Reopening After an Incident

Although less common, sometimes your entire workforce is returning at once, typically after a temporary closure due to a workplace safety incident or another scenario. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies drew up a RTW plan that covered everything from social distancing to personal protective equipment (PPE).

Employers should rely on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) when creating a return-to-work plan for a pandemic or another public health emergency. Use appropriate signage to remind employees about workplace safety protocols or public health measures.

4 Steps to a Personalized Return-to-Work Plan

Return to work plan: manager putting his stuff in a box

The best way to develop an effective return-to-work program is to plan ahead. Although every situation is different, you can be prepared to handle a wide range of scenarios by following these four steps and tailoring them to the individual circumstance:

1. Update Your Policies

First, have a clear return-to-work policy and make sure employees know their rights and obligations before they go on leave. For example, if an employee is going on FMLA leave, you’ll need to provide them with a designation notice letting them know whether or not you’ll require a fitness-for-duty certification before they can return to work.

Employees on job-protected leave will be entitled to return to the same role, with the same or equivalent pay, work days, and job description.

Other policies, such as a remote work policy, can also benefit employees returning to work by providing them with more flexibility and control over their workspace.

2. Streamline Communication

Communication is a key part of any return-to-work plan, but it can be tricky to balance the employer’s need for updates with the employee’s right to privacy. It’s OK to check-in with the employee while they’re on leave to see how things are progressing, but avoid asking them to do any work or pressure them into returning ahead of schedule.

If the employee provides information about their medical condition, store it separately from other files to comply with FMLA confidentiality rules and other requirements. 

Consider using a platform like Pulpstream to manage your return-to-work process and streamline communication with employees using a secure, cloud-based platform.

3. Provide Reintegration Support

The longer an employee has been out of work, the harder it may be for them to return to the workplace. If an employee is recovering from an injury or illness, they might require reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of their job, or be placed on a light-duty assignment to accommodate any necessary work restrictions.

Even if an employee doesn’t have any physical limitations, they may need to learn new skills or adapt to new workflows. New parents may need to arrange for childcare or be entitled to additional break time for nursing.

Work with each employee to understand their situations and determine what kind of support you can provide to reintegrate them into the workforce.

4. Consider a Phased Return

The return-to-work process doesn’t have to happen all at once. A phased return allows an employee to return to work gradually over the course of several weeks or months, giving them more time to recover while they transition back to a full-time schedule.

A phased return could entail reduced work hours, a reduced workload, or other changes to their job requirements. For example, an employee returning from mental health leave may be allowed to skip in-person meetings while they readjust to the workplace.

For a successful outcome, use a RTW template to ensure you and the employee are on the same page. Specify a timeframe for the phased return-to-work, such as four weeks of part-time time work before the employee resumes their usual schedule.

Provide a Personalized Return-to-Work Plan With Pulpstream

Mother carrying her child while using a laptop

Ensuring a successful return to work is a collaboration between your human resources team and your returning employee. Start by creating a return-to-work policy that covers everything from sick leave to parental leave. Then, consider each employee’s situation on a case-by-case basis to determine if they would benefit from a flexible schedule, a phased return-to-work, or other reintegration strategies.

Pulpstream helps employees get back to work safely and efficiently with return-to-work process automation. By digitizing documents and streamlining communication using a single cloud-based platform, you can spend less time filling out forms and more time tailoring your return-to-work process to each individual employee.

Plus, Pulpstream makes it easy to file workers’ comp claims, handle leave of absence requests, and track ADA accommodations, aiding your HR team at every step of the LOA and RTW process. Request a demo today to see how it works!