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When each week brings news of mass workforce layoffs, returning individual disabled employees to work might not seem like a priority.

On the surface, it could appear that spending on return-to-work (RTW) initiatives in tough economic times is a luxury that downsizing organizations cannot afford.

However, the opposite is the case. In a recessionary economy, it is even more important for a company to have a strong and effective RTW focus than in robust economic times.

With todays sharply curtailed workforces, companies are forced to maximize productivity with existing staff. In the booming 1990s, when an employee was out on a disability, a fellow employee could fill in. Thats no longer the case.

Employees are already working to more than a full capacity and cannot absorb the excess work of an absent co-worker.

When workers arent on the job, companies feel the impact. According to industry estimates, the direct and indirect costs of absenteeism range from 12% to 18% of payroll. Those figures are particularly painful in times of belt-tightening.

Structured RTW programs help–by minimizing the costs of having workers off the job. They bring disabled employees back to the workplace, even in a transitional capacity, as soon as safely possible.

What should a RTW program include?

Case management. Case managers are an important link between the disabled worker, employer and the physician. They coordinate care, ensure that treatment is appropriate and that health care providers understand available RTW options, and help keep the lines of communication open between employers and disabled employees.

Employees who have access to a nurse case manager during their absence are 22% more likely to ask their supervisor about returning to work, according to our research. Similarly, disabled employees who have regular conversations with their manager are more satisfied with their experience than those who have minimal contact and are back on the job in half the time.

Job accommodations or transitional duties features. These allow employees to come back to work and be productive, even if they are not yet functioning as before the disability.

Contingency planning before claims are filed provides employers with RTW options that become immediately useful in the disability management process. These options include original job functions as well as productive alternative functions. They can be given to the treating physician on the initial visit, thus introducing the question of work immediately as a natural consideration within recovery and treatment planning. This is important, because various studies indicate that prolonged time away from work makes recovery and return to work progressively less likely.

Wellness, disease management, ergonomic interventions and employee assistance programs. These contribute to reduced absence by keeping employees healthy, reducing the incidence and severity of work-related injuries, and raising employee satisfaction levels. These RTW interventions can be applied to any disabling injury or illness claim, regardless of whether it is work related.

Bottom line? Reducing direct expenses, such as wage replacement and indemnity costs, directly affect the companys profit-and-loss statement, increasing shareholder value. Some estimates say an employer with $100 million payroll can expect to spend $3.9 million on direct costs associated with time off and disability benefits from workers compensation and short- and long-term disability. The net result of a successful RTW program is a reduction in those costly lost workdays.

Keep in mind that union issues and state regulations can impact a companys ability to implement RTW initiatives. Industries with highly specialized jobs–airline pilots, for example–may have less flexibility to offer appropriate accommodations.

Also, RTW may be less critical for businesses with highly motivated professional staff, such as law firms.

Even so, productivity remains a concern for all businesses. When employees with unique skills are unable to safely perform their routine duties–despite their strong motivation to do so–professional consultation by experienced ergonomic and workplace specialists can help.

Finally, in order for a RTW program to be effective, it must be supported throughout the companys culture, beginning with senior management and cascading through line managers to the employees themselves.

Overall, managing earliest and safe returns to the workplace is one of the most powerful strategies for reducing lost workdays and improving overall workforce productivity in a challenging economy.

is director of Integrated Disability Management product development at Intracorp in Philadelphia, Pa. Her e-mail is berobinson@mail.intracorp.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, February 24, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.