Creating a positive return-to-work experience

How an employee returns to work following an absence—be it due to a physical or mental illness—will have a huge impact on his or her recovery process and their sustainable return to the workplace.

The key players
A return-to-work strategy that involves all of the partners necessary to the re-integration process is key to a successful return to work. The role of the manager, however, is critical to ensuring a sustainable return to work. As the direct link to the workplace, the manager plays a critical role by maintaining contact with the employee during the absence.

Reinforcing the connection between the employee and the workplace should be thought of as the first step in return-to-work planning. Maintaining contact can be as simple as sending the employee the link to the company newsletter or making a quick telephone call to see if there’s anything they might need. In fact, the most successful return-to-work plans begin by simply asking employees what they need in order to come back to work.

Employees typically know what they’re capable of, and their involvement in the creation of a return-to-work plan is important to ensuring a sustainable and effective return. The goal should be to engage employees so that they remain motivated and look forward to returning to a healthy lifestyle that includes work.In addition to the employee and their supervisor or manager, the insurer or disability management administrator, the treatment provider(s), and in some cases, a union representative, also play a crucial role in establishing the return-to-work plan.

Essential plan elements
The plan should be documented, specify a start date and an end date and itemize the specific accommodations. As a guide, most plans shouldn’t exceed six to eight weeks. In establishing the strategy and written plan for your employee’s return, managers should consider the current work environment and employees.

  • Is there a workplace conflict? If so, it has to be addressed and solutions identified otherwise there is the potential for the same issues to re-surface. Electing to ignore the situation is not an option for a successful return to work process.
  • Are we offering meaningful work at the employee’s job level?
  • Is the plan compliant with privacy and Duty to Accommodate legislation?
  • Have the employee’s direct co-workers been considered? They may need to know certain aspects of the plan, particularly if they are taking on some of the employee’s job duties. It’s important that they know when the employee is returning, while always maintaining the employee’s privacy.

When creating a return-to-work plan, it’s imperative to consider what accommodation  the employee may require. The following are commonly used accommodations:

  • changes or modifications to job duties and specific tasks. With the employee, identify tasks that they are most confident in  and then add to these as the plan progresses;
  • reduced hours, gradually working up to full-time hours by the last week;
  • Changes to work start and end times;
  • the timing of breaks;
  • changes or modifications to communication requirements; and
  • changes or modifications to the physical workspace.

Be flexible and creative in designing the plan and revise it according to evolving needs. The main objective is to support the employee and the business with a sustained return to work.

Taking action
On the employee’s first day back to work, schedule a meeting at the beginning of the day to review the return-to-work plan, discuss any additional requirements, such as training or required reading on a new process, and update the employee on any changes that have taken place while they were absent. Also, ensure the employee’s workspace is set up properly and they have the required access to buildings, systems or other tools.

This re-orientation into the workplace adds a great deal of value to the process. Set aside a few minutes each day to check-in with the employee, and a few minutes at the end of each week.

The return to work should be a positive experience for the employee, their co-workers and the manager. Keys to success include on-going communication, input from the employee and other stakeholders, modifying the plan if needed, monitoring to the end of the formal plan and intermittent check-in with the employee to ensure that he or she is on track.

Julie Holden, health and productivity leader with Towers Watson Canada, in Toronto.