Best practices for return-to-work committees

In one episode of the television show The Office, salesman Stanley Hudson has a heart attack during a workplace fire drill. A few days later, he’s back at his desk, with only a doctor’s orders to “relate more positively” to his surroundings.

Many employers can only dream of such an easy return to work. In the real world, employees often have a more challenging time returning to work after a health issue, whether it’s due to a stroke, a broken arm or mental-health challenges.

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Enter the return-to-work committee, in which management and union representatives collaborate on helping employees get back into the swing of things. “More often than not, when employees go on leaves of absence, there’s a bit of an out-ofsight, out-of-mind concept . . . ,” says Joel Gomes, senior human resources manager at Beneplan Inc. in Toronto. A committee, he notes, “allows the employee the assurance that the workplace is doing its utmost to reintegrate them.”

Committees should include the employee in their discussions, says Bryan Lai, vice-president of benefits consulting at BFL Canada in Vancouver. “Best practice would be around maintaining regular contact with them,” he notes. “You still want to make them feel part of the organization, and the longer someone’s off, it’s obviously harder to bring them back.”

At the same time, committees should allow employees time to recuperate. “Let’s say I just got approved for [long-term disability] today. And then my employer is pinging me in less than 48 hours to say, ‘Hey, maybe we can figure out a gradual return to work,’” says Gomes, noting that while an employer should avoid stressing the employee out and making recovery more difficult, the committee can still plan for the next steps during the recuperation period.

One employer’s strategy

At the City of Hamilton, return-to-work specialists handle the details for short-term accommodations, says Donna Barber, supervisor of return-to-work services.

During its quarterly meetings, the committee looks at employees receiving temporary accommodation for three months or more and convenes to discuss those requiring it on a permanent basis.

Read: The case for medium-term disability management

An employee’s limitations may mean having to switch unions. Take the case of a Hamilton bus driver, a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union, who loses vision in one eye. The driver would need to move to another type of job and would be on short- or long-term disability while the committee examines the person’s abilities and the available positions, Barber notes.

The city may have an opening in litter pickup, which is part of CUPE Local 5167. If the employee has no restrictions on walking and bending, the job could be a good fit. So the employee, the city, return-to-work services and representatives of both unions would all sit down to discuss the transfer.

“I don’t want to give the false understanding that that’s a shift that happens arbitrarily,” says Barber.

“There’s a number of criteria that have to be met prior to that person going into that CUPE 5167 job,” she adds, citing a requirement that no current CUPE member is waiting for a permanent accommodation who would fit the position.

Teamwork is dream work

During committee meetings, both management and union representatives should “leave their titles at the door . . . [and] not use the committee as a forum for posturing or negotiating outside of collective bargaining,” says Lai. He notes return-to-work committees can help all parties: management gets an employee back sooner and may not need to hire temporary help, the union can show it has taken care of a member, and the employee returns to a regular paycheque.

Read: Why engagement is critical to managing short-term disability leaves

“Be collaborative,” says Barber.

“Our end goal, whether it be union, management, the employee or return-to-work services, is to get somebody into a job that’s going to be successful for them and successful for the workplace,” she adds.

Sara Tatelman is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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