Bringing an employee back to work after a disability is a challenge every employer faces, regardless of the size or scope of its organization. But the transition can be eased by a return-to-work (RTW) program that addresses the needs of both employer and employee. To ensure these needs are met, organizations implementing a RTW program should first consider why the program is being implemented, what absence issues the program will seek to address and who needs to be involved in the program’s successful execution.

The why
An organization is most often driven to consider a RTW program by higher-than-average absence costs. Each organization, therefore, should first thoroughly investigate its internal absence costs to understand where they originate.


An organization must be able to identify the following absence costs:

  • the total costs related to an absence of any kind in a calendar year;
  • how these costs are linked to casual absence or short- or long-term disability; and
  • the absence costs linked to specific departments or units, including absence costs identified by periods of time throughout the year.

A formal RTW program built around these identified costs will be more effective in helping employers return absent employees to productive positions. Absence costs and the program’s ability to improve these costs should be reviewed every 24 months—at a minimum.

The what
The next step involves analyzing what absence issues are present in an organization. For some employers, chronic illness may be identified as a key absence cost. For others, mental health issues may be at the root.

The goal of returning the employee to work will be the same in all cases. But RTW planning and execution will differ according to the nature of the disability—so understanding your organization’s unique absence challenges is key. For example, employees who are regularly absent throughout the year due to chronic illness can be successfully returned to work. But these employees will likely return on a temporary basis and may eventually be directed to a more permanent short-or long-term disability program if their illness progresses.

The Who
It is also important to identify who in your organization must be involved in a RTW program, since a successful initiative involves a number of departments and individuals working together. Some or all of the following parties may be involved:

HR – to ensure the program meets the employer’s duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship, as provided for in human rights law.

RTW specialists – to help establish resources and an environment that helps to ensure employees remain in the workplace. Where an employee is absent but aiming to come back to work, these experts can liaise with the medical community and interpret confidential medical information.

The employee – to participate in treatment prescribed by his or her medical team and to provide the employer with medical documentation, including information on any work restrictions and limitations.

When the duration of an absence is reduced, all costs associated with that absence also decrease—including the number of paid sick days used and the need to hire replacement workers. By defining the why, what and who behind your organization’s RTW needs, you will be able to create a program that can reduce absenteeism and improve your bottom line.

Mary Crunkleton is director of employee services with Assessment Rehabilitation Services Inc. mary@arsi.ca

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Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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