Temporary workplace accommodation is one of the cornerstones of disability management. It helps employees return to work safely and aids in their recovery as they return to full unrestricted duties. For employers, it returns employees to them sooner than if they had to wait for them to completely regain their pre-disability health prior coming back and gets institutional knowledge and experience back in the workplace.

While a return to full unrestricted duties isn’t always possible for every employee following a disability, that ultimate goal is what we’ll discuss here. Accommodation is a valuable tool for everyone when done right.

Here are nine things to avoid when contemplating a temporary accommodation to ensure a successful reintegration of a returning worker:

1. There’s no clearly defined plan

The return-to-work plan is a fundamental management tool for an organization that clearly lays out the path to coming back while working toward the ultimate goal of the employee’s return to full unrestricted duties. A plan should be in writing and developed collaboratively between the employee, supervisor, human resources and union (if applicable). The plan should include a time frame with a start and an end date, a work schedule and a progression of duties as recovery progresses. The plan should identify any barriers and the solutions to overcome them, as well as checkpoints to assess how things are going. The plan should be clearly communicated and agreed to by all parties. A return to work without a plan can result in a graduated return or temporary accommodation that doesn’t appear to progress or a returning worker stuck in modified duties needlessly.

2. There are workplace issues

If there’s conflict on the team or an employee doesn’t get along with a supervisor or has been having performance issues unrelated to the disability, a return to work is going to be complicated. The employee may resist returning to the workplace or the team or supervisor may not be supportive. It’s a much better scenario to identify the workplace issue to the disability adjudicator up front so that it can be taken in context with the employee’s health issues and any subsequent return-to-work planning.

3. The employee isn’t on board

Related to the prior point, in order for an accommodation to be successful, an employee really needs to see the benefits of a return to work, whether accommodated or not, and buy in to the plan. If the employee has doubts about the accommodation, doesn’t believe a return to work while still recovering is a good idea or is worried about regression of the condition or getting hurt, an accommodation isn’t going to be as successful as it could be. An open dialogue about how the return to work will progress and ensuring the employee has a mechanism for feedback will go a long way in assisting in the process.

4. The employee’s supervisor isn’t on board

The disability management team has been working with the disabled employee to put a plan together. Together, they’ve set a return date with a graduated work schedule. The employee’s supervisor, however, doesn’t want the person back. The supervisor may be concerned about the reduced productivity of an accommodated worker; may be avoiding dealing with performance issues with the returning employee; or may have had a bad experience in the past where an accommodation didn’t go well. It’s also possible the supervisor doesn’t understand that the process contributes to the employee’s recovery or feels they don’t have the tools to properly manage the return or an accommodation. A good approach is to involve the supervisor early in return-to-work or accommodation discussions and have an open dialogue about restrictions, expectations and barriers and how performance will be managed during this transitional time.

5. Expectations haven’t been clearly communicated

Just as communication is key in any relationship, there needs to be solid and regular communication between employer and insurer. If the organization can’t meet the requirements of the return-to-work plan, can’t accommodate the employee or meet the timelines or it needs additional support, it’s really important to speak up.  Similarly, clearly communicating the expectations of a return-to-work plan with the disabled employee is a key factor of its success.

6. The organization has processes in place that hinder success

It’s possible that processes that a well-meaning organization has put in place to help manage returning workers are actually creating obstacles to a successful return or are inadvertently increasing the duration of disability claims. In fact, it could be creating loopholes for an employee or a supervisor who’s hesitant to embrace the accommodation or graduated return-to-work plan. Asking an independent third party to evaluate both the processes of both the organization and the disability adjudication team and examine how they integrate can identify potential issues and allow all parties to work as a team to support each other and the returning worker.

7. The employee’s physician doesn’t support the plan

Some organizations still view the return-to-work process as one that is owned and managed by the disabled employee’s physician. If we consider that most of what physicians have to work with in making an assessment of an employee’s fitness to work is based on self-reporting from the patient, having them  drive the process is, in most cases, backwards. While physicians absolutely want to see their patient return to work safely, they may take a more conservative approach and are likely to not have a clear line of sight as to what modified duties could look like in the work environment. Turn the process around and look for the physician’s support, not direction.

8. There are changes in the organization during the disability

Change is a tough one to avoid, especially if an employee has been away from work for some time. The key, however, is to ensure that someone in the organization continues to manage the return to work and own the process and that the employee and the return-to-work plan isn’t lost in whatever change is occurring. It’s also important to keep the insurer informed when changes in the organization might have an impact on how a return to work plan is executed or its duration.

9. There are trust issues between employer and insurer

Sometimes in disability claims management, things don’t go as anticipated. Privacy of medical information adds to the complexity of communication as there are things an insurer just can’t divulge. However, if an employer feels its insurer isn’t adjudicating claims according to the contract or isn’t a partner in disability management, it’s time to have a frank conversation and clear the air or look for a new partner.

Temporary accommodation, and in fact disability management as a whole, are most effective when there’s collaboration between the employer, insurer and employee. Clearly setting out the rules of engagement for all parties at the outset lays the foundation for understanding each other’s expectations, philosophies, timelines and processes and creates an environment where communication can be honest and open. Regular facilitated calls or meetings between an organization and the disability adjudicators can help keep things on track for everyone.

Kim Siddall is an associate vice-president with Aon. She has more than 20 years of experience in the health and benefits industry. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.
Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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Chas:

Depending on the context (occupational/non-occupational injury; SABS, STD/LTD or WSIB med/rehab and income continuance funding), there are actually five stakeholders,whose agreement on the RTW plan, can make the difference between a failed return attempt and a spectacularly successful one.

They are (1) the employee (2) the employer (3) the regulated health professional overseeing the required assessments of physical and cognitive capacity relative to job demands (4) the union (5) the funding party e.g. LTD insurer.

Without the health evidence to support a proposed plan, the probabilities of failure are well above 50%, giving rise to bad blood, human rights code violation filings and litigation.

Primary care physicians certainly have a role to play. The problem is with the questions they are asked. They are often placed in a conflicted position with general questions such as “Can Patricia work?”, when they know that a ‘yes’ without qualifications or conditions is an automatic discontinuation of income for who might be a life long patient.

The focus needs to be on specific measurable abilities and limitations, assessed by professionals, otherwise objectivity is lost. And when objectivity is lost, everyone loses in the end: benefits are forcibly re-instated, along with the released LTD claim reserves, the employer has lost a productive employee, and the employer has exposed itself to reputational (not to say financial) risk if and when an OHRC action is ever heard by a tribunal.

Thursday, June 30 at 10:45 am | Reply

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