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How to Create an Effective Return to Work Policy

Returning to work after an illness or injury is an important step on a worker’s road to recovery, but it raises questions for both the employer and the employee. How much time away from work are workers entitled to? Do they need to be “100% healed” before they can return? And can they be assigned to transitional work or light duty?

Having a return to work program ensures that ill or injured employees know when they can get back to work, and what conditions they’ll need to meet in order to do so.

Here’s how to create a clear and effective return to work policy and use HR automation to streamline your employee’s return.

What Is a Return to Work Policy?

A return to work (RTW) policy is a set of guidelines that describes how and under what conditions an ill or injured worker can resume their regular job. The purpose of a RTW policy is to standardize the return to work process so that your employees know their options and can rejoin the workforce faster.

A return to work program differs from a returnship program, which is meant to reskill experienced employees who took a career break.

A RTW program usually applies to employees who need to take time off work due to a workplace injury or a medical condition. An ill or injured employee may be well enough to return to work but unable to perform all of their job duties, so a RTW policy helps both parties navigate that transitional period and ensure a successful return.

Benefits of a Return to Work Policy

Having a good return to work policy doesn’t just benefit employees; it also makes things easier for your human resources department. Here are a few ways a RTW policy can streamline operations and improve productivity in the workplace.

  • Faster recovery: For employees who are well enough to perform light duties, feeling like part of the team and socializing with co-workers can speed up their recovery and improve their mental health.
  • Financial security: Workers’ compensation benefits don’t usually provide a full salary. A RTW policy helps workers maintain a stable income, while reducing your workers’ compensation costs.
  • Reduced turnover: When employees get back to work sooner, you spend less time hiring replacement workers or training temp workers for the role.
  • Improved compliance: Depending on the reason for the leave, some workers may have additional protections under federal law. Having a standardized return to work policy ensures that you meet your legal obligations as an employer and maintain the documentation to prove it.

A return to work policy isn’t just a nice-to-have perk or an employee benefit. It shows your employees that you’re looking out for their well-being and doing your best to create a work environment where no one gets left behind.

Types of Return to Work Policies

Return to work policy: doctor showing a document to her patient

The return to work process will vary depending on whether an employee is on leave due to a work-related injury, a personal medical condition, or a disability. Different laws apply to each situation, so be sure to comply with the current requirements in your state.

Here are three common scenarios that call for a return to work policy:

1. Returning to Work After a Workers’ Compensation Claim

When an employee gets injured on the job, they may qualify for workers’ compensation benefits until they can return to work. A return to work program allows them to get back to work sooner than they might otherwise be able to.

Their treating physician will assess the employee’s ability to return to full-duty work or to take on modified duty job tasks. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to provide the employee with alternative work assignments that take their medical restrictions into account.

The duration of the transitional period could be anywhere from a few weeks to several months. If a work injury meets the criteria of a disability, an employee may qualify for additional protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

2. Returning to Work After FMLA Leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has its own set of return to work guidelines. Unlike workers’ compensation insurance, FMLA leave can apply to a variety of situations that aren’t related to a workplace injury, such as:

  • The birth or adoption of a child
  • A family member’s illness or injury
  • A personal medical or mental health condition
  • A qualifying exigency related to a military deployment

Employees who qualify for FMLA leave can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and they are entitled to the same role and the same pay when they return to work.

If the absence is related to medical treatment or a medical condition, the employer can ask for a fitness-for-duty certification from the employee’s health care provider when they intend to return to work.

3. Returning to Work After ADA Leave

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with a qualifying disability. This could take the form of ADA leave, modified work equipment, improved accessibility, or a part-time schedule.

Employees might also qualify for ADA protections after taking another type of leave if an injury or illness has turned into an ongoing disability. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation even if the return to work period has ended.

As with workers’ comp, the employee’s medical provider or treating doctor will assess the employee’s ability and make a list of any necessary work restrictions. Employers should engage in the ADA interactive process with the employee to find suitable accommodations.

Return to Work Best Practices

Having a written return to work policy makes it easier to communicate the benefits of your RTW program to your employees, and it also simplifies your paperwork. Here are three best practices to ensure that your return to work policy is clear and impartial, and meets your obligations under the law:

  • Get it in writing: A return to work policy needs to be flexible enough to account for a variety of situations, but clear enough that employees know what to expect from it. Provide employees with a copy of your return to work policy when they first start their job so they can get familiar with it long before they might need it.
  • Make a list of light-duty tasks: The most important part of any return to work policy is having clear job descriptions. Ensure that there’s a clear delineation between full-duty tasks and temporary, light-duty tasks. The goal is to eventually return the employee to their full-duty position.
  • Be careful with “100% healed” requirements: Requiring employees to be “fully healed” or to have no work restrictions before they can return to their job violates the ADA and could result in legal liability. However, fitness-for-duty certifications are permitted for reinstatement after FMLA leave — as long as the employee doesn’t have a qualifying disability under the ADA.

Since every case is different, make a custom offer of transitional duty to each employee who is returning to work and create a formal agreement for them to sign.

Help Employees Return to Work With a Clear RTW Policy

Worker sitting in a wheelchair while using a tablet

A return to work program helps employees rejoin the workforce by providing them with temporary, light-duty work until they’re fully recovered. Depending on the nature of the illness or injury, federal laws like the FMLA and the ADA may also apply. Having a clear return to work policy can streamline the process for everyone involved.

Pulpstream makes it easy with our leave of absence and return to work management systems. Our cloud-based platform helps you connect separate elements of your RTW system — including SMS, DocuSign, and email — so you can streamline key parts of the process. You can also use it to automate other HR processes, such as incident management and claims management.

Request a demo today to see Pulpstream in action and learn more!