Easing a worker back on the job

After an injury, detailed plan helps with transition
By Hugh Secord
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/10/2009

When an employee is injured, the first priority is obviously to seek medical attention. But an employer’s attention will soon turn to getting that worker back on the job.

At the appropriate time, and as soon as possible after the injury has occurred and the employee has received treatment, the organization should ask for a diagnosis that, at a minimum, provides details as to what the employee is able to do and what tasks the person may be unable to perform. Once the organization is aware of the restrictions placed on the employee, it can begin contemplating what assignments the employee can handle.

If the employee is initially unable to perform any available work, the employer should note the prognosis and establish a date to follow up with the doctor when it is likely fewer restrictions will be placed on the employee.

Once potential assignments have been identified, the employee should be asked to attend a meeting to discuss an early return to work. At the meeting, the employee can be given precise details as to what work will be given to him and how that work fits within his physical restrictions. If the employee agrees, the plan should be documented and signed by the employee and his supervisor. He can then be given an orientation for the assignment and scheduled to return to work.

Assigning a transitional work plan

The term “transitional” implies the work plan will only be put into effect for a short period of time. Therefore, it is only appropriate to design such a plan for employees who are expected to fully recover from their injuries in a relatively short period of time.

As a rule of thumb, transitional work plans are best suited to employees who are likely to fully recover from their injuries within six weeks. If an employee’s prognosis is originally for a full recovery in 12 weeks, the employer should insist the individual stay at home for the first six weeks and recover. Then the person can return for the second six-week period to the transitional work assignment. This general approach is intended to maximize the employee’s opportunity to recover completely.

If an employee has not fully recovered at the end of the six-week transitional work assignment, the employer may want to extend the assignment. Care should be taken to ensure the assignment is not having an adverse effect on the employee’s rehabilitation and the extension should be limited to no more than six additional weeks.

If after a full 12 weeks the person has not fully recovered, it is obvious the assignment is not having the desired effect — which is to ensure a speedy recovery so the employee can resume his full duties.

Under no circumstances should an employee be offered a transitional work assignment without medical supervision.

Graduated return-to-work programs

One form of an early return-to-work program is the graduated return to work. This may be an appropriate strategy to incorporate into a transitional work plan. It can also be a strategy to help employees who have had very long absences return to work with reduced risk.

An employee who has been absent from work for a long period (such as more than six months) may become psychologically removed from work and find it difficult to immediately resume a full work schedule.

A graduated work program may be appropriate for employees who have been absent due to illness and have recovered to the point where they represent no danger to others and their doctors indicate they are able to perform some work.

Essentially, a graduated return to work involves starting the employee back with only a few scheduled hours and, over a defined period, increasing those hours until the employee resumes full-time employment. (See sidebar.)

Since it is intended as a transitional work plan, the graduated return program should only be implemented under medical supervision. If the doctor indicates the employee will likely be able to graduate back to full-time hours in a six-week period, then the parties can proceed with the plan.

Accommodation through work scheduling

In some instances, employees may be able to perform a full day’s work under a transitional work plan but are unable to attend during a specific shift because doing so will interfere with prescribed treatment such as physiotherapy.

In such cases, the first priority is for the employee to make attempts to accommodate the employer by changing the treatment schedule. However, this is not always possible. The second possibility is for the parties to agree the employee will be excused during a specified period during his shift to attend treatment. If possible and necessary, the employer might also offer transportation to the employee to ease the burden of the extra travel during the workday.

In other cases the best way to accommodate an employee is to change his shift. Employees on afternoon or evening shifts may be better accommodated at times when there are more colleagues available to help supervise their activities and ensure they have access to needed support.

Hugh Secord is author of HR Manager’s Guide to Attendance Management, published by Carswell. For more information about the book or to order it, visit www.carswell.com.


Return to work

Dealing with a difficult employee

Employees have an obligation to co-operate with their employers’ efforts in early return-to-work programs, modified duty programs and any other attempts to accommodate the employee or reduce the company’s liabilities.

A failure on the part of the employee to co-operate can lead to certain consequences. If the employee is receiving compensation benefits from a workers’ compensation board, he may be disqualified from receiving further benefits. In the case of non-work-related injuries and illnesses, and under some disability plans, he may also be disqualified from receiving benefits. Furthermore, an employee may be terminated for cause for failing to co-operate with efforts to accommodate him.

Alternatively, an employee may be ordered to accept a position and be deemed to have abandoned his position if he does not report back to work at the appointed time.

When dealing with an employee who is not co-operating, the employer should be very specific about what it requires from the employee (or, through the employee, what it requires from his doctor or other medical practitioner). It should document precisely what is required and provide reasonable deadlines for the employee to comply with. If the employee fails to comply with reasonable requests for information or substantiating medical evidence, the employer may deem the person to have tacitly abandoned his position and he may be terminated.


Timetable

Graduated return to work

A graduated return might look like this:

Week one

Two hours per day

Week two

Three hours per day

Week three

Four hours per day

Week four

Five hours per day

Week five

Six hours per day

Week six

Seven hours per day

Completion of the plan

Eight hours per day

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