As a private employer, you play an important role in the return to work of valued employees who must stop working for extended periods because of sickness or injury. By maintaining communication with the worker, assisting with any necessary insurance issues and using flexible return-to-work policies and procedures, you help assure the employee that you want him or her back and ensure a timely return to work for skilled workers.
Remember that you must comply at all times with appropriate state and federal laws concerning civil rights, confidentiality of medical information and worker's compensation. Your return-to-work policies and procedures must be consistent not only with state workers' compensation laws, but also with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and any other disability-related federal laws that apply to your workplace.
Open Lines of Communication
When a worker has a serious medical condition or has had an injury that prevents that employee from being on the job, maintain contact with the individual or, if appropriate, the individual's family. Answer any questions the worker or worker's family may have about leave rights or benefits and offer to provide any additional information they need to which you have access. If possible, visit your employee, which will let the employee know you are concerned and give you a chance to assure the worker that you look forward to his or her return to work. Ask the worker what information, if any, he or she wants shared with co-workers and contacts outside the work site and whether or not the employee would welcome calls or visits from co-workers. Maintain contact throughout the worker's absence and keep the employee informed about news and developments at work. Assure the employee that you welcome hearing from her or him. Building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect during the absence will carry over when the worker returns to the job.
Contact With the Insurance Company
After establishing contact with the absent employee, provide information and any necessary assistance that helps the worker apply for health insurance or workers' compensation benefits. The type of assistance you can give will be determined, of course, by the type of coverage the employee has. If your company is self-insured, you can directly notify the company's health insurance benefits office that you have an employee who is critically ill or seriously injured. Be available to answer any questions the carrier may have. By contacting the benefits department, you are letting it know you are interested in the well-being of your employee and expect your employee to be treated well.
If, however, your health benefits are provided through a contract with an HMO, insurance company or other organization that provides or administers a health insurance plan on behalf of your employees, your role is probably more limited. Provide the worker assistance applying for benefits and services if requested to do so by the employee.
Some insurance plans provide for the services of a nurse consultant, who will act on behalf of the employee in matters such as approval of medical treatment, the rehabilitation program and the purchasing of equipment. The consultant will also answer insurance benefit questions for the family.
Reintegration to Work
Employees who feel appreciated are much more likely to return to work promptly and to participate actively in the return-to-work process. Returning workers may require accommodations such as modified work stations, work areas or work hours. Letting an employee know you are interested in being ready for the worker's return to work shows your commitment to having him or her back on the job. Modifications should be discussed with the employee and any rehabilitation professionals who are working with the employee. If the employee is not working with a rehabilitation professional, offer to bring in a rehabilitation engineer, vocational rehabilitation counselor or occupational therapist for consultation. The employee has to be fully involved in the discussions regarding modifications, including being allowed to make suggestions about the modifications and being kept informed as those modifications are being planned and made. Consider having the employee inspect accommodations and any physical modifications being done to the work site before he or she returns to the job to prevent surprises when the return-to-work day arrives.
Offer the employee options such as returning to work on a part-time schedule, gradually increasing work hours, or taking part in meetings via conference calls. Be sure to discuss the length of such an arrangement with the employee, and be prepared to make adjustments along the way. If requested, send the employee's general mail, memos and other informational materials home on a prearranged schedule, so the employee is not overwhelmed when returning to the work site.
The employee may need to continue rehabilitation after returning to work. Be as flexible as possible with the employee's work schedule while rehabilitation continues.
Protecting the Returning Worker's Privacy
Federal laws protect the privacy of the returning worker. You may share information about the worker's condition with persons at the workplace under these circumstances:
If the worker's duties or abilities will be restricted, you may give the supervisors and managers the information about those restrictions or accommodation
If the worker's condition might require emergency treatment, you may inform first aid and safety personnel about the condition, where appropriate
You should not tell anyone else about the worker's condition, health status or physical limitations. He or she may decide to share that information with colleagues, but that decision is for the worker to make.
Support and Continuing Support
If the worker does tell individual co-workers about his or her condition, be open to the ideas of those co-workers on how the return could be made easier and less stressful for their colleague. Be mindful not to volunteer details about the worker's health condition or physical limitations. Instead, focus on how co-workers can help their colleague make a successful return to work.
Your continued support will be needed even after your employee returns to work. The worker needs to know you are as interested now as you were when he or she was on medical leave. Open lines of communication will continue to be important.
Most important, be sure to let the employee know that he or she continues to be a valuable member of the workplace team.
The information for this fact sheet came from three sources:
This publication is available in alternate formats.
- The Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor
"When Catastrophe Strikes: What Employers Can Do," SPINAL Column, the Magazine of Shepherd Center, Summer 2000
Dr. Joel Moorhead, M.D., a former member of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, and currently with Disability Management Services, Prudential Insurance
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disabilitiy Employment Policy, July 2001