Formal return-to-work programs are an established means of controlling elements of workplace unscheduled absence.

About 54% of employers in the 2005 JHA Absence Management Survey said they have some type of formal return-to-work program, with prevalence ranging from 35% in companies with 100 or fewer employees to 77% of employers with 5,000 or more workers.

Those findings are supported by the 2004 Marsh Mercer Employer Survey Report on Employers’ Time-off and Disability Program, in which 58% of respondents indicated they use a consistent return-to-work approach to all absences related to a disability.

About 65% of employers in the JHA survey felt they were having success in returning employees to work, while 56% said their disability insurance carrier or administrator could do a better job of returning employees to work sooner. Those results warrant a closer look at what constitutes a return-to-work program.

Here are the three C’s of a successful return-to-work program, along with one important V.

Commitment

Successful programs require commitment from both the insurance carrier and the employer. Each stakeholder must allocate resources and develop and implement processes that focus on returning employees to work.

The employer commits to review the benefits program costs that relate to medical absence. Once this is complete, it will show the employer what the lost-time costs are to the organization. Consideration needs to be given to the type of industry and jobs performed in the worksites. Based on a review of this information, the employer makes a decision to move forward to implement a return-to-work program.

Employers should commit to creating a policy that promotes return to work for all disability absences and setting resources toward specific goals, such as streamlining processes. The commitment should include a shift in philosophy to focus on abilities, not disability.

A critical element requiring commitment on the part of the employer is creating staff with return-to-work responsibilities.

Coordination

An employee such as a return-to-work coordinator will work with internal stakeholders to identify and implement return-to-work plans. The coordinator becomes the liaison with the insurance carrier, to document employees’ abilities and work with managers to create modified and transitional return-to-work opportunities.

The insurance carrier commits to aggressive claims management with a focus on return to work.

Communication

Frequent and constant communication is the lifeblood of a successful return-to-work program: communication between the employer and the managers, the coordinator and the managers, the coordinator and the insurers, the employer and the employee, and the coordinator and the treating physicians–the list goes on. For example, clear expectations should be communicated to employees, department managers and physicians treating injured or ill employees.

If a discussion on the return-to-work program takes place with the employee when he or she files a claim, that reinforces the worker’s value to the organization and sets expectations. This upfront communication with the employee makes a difference and so does ongoing communication with the employee while the employee is out of work. The goal is to keep the employee connected with the workplace.

Upfront communication and training are also key for managers. They will know that from the start of an employee’s absence that they will be asked to help modify an employee’s job so that the employee can transition back to work.

Value

The value to the employer is seen in the potential reduction of durations of short-term disability claims and improved long-term disability experience, which are two of the many benefits of a well-executed return-to-work program.

One company that took this approach found the duration of STD claims dropped 18% overall, and non-maternity STD average duration fell 25%. In addition, the company, with 11,000 employees, had 1,744 fewer “lost workdays.” That amounts to the saving of the time of eight full-time employees or nearly $400,000. The company’s LTD claim incidence fell to 1.4 per 1,000 employees, from 4.9 per 1,000 employees.

That kind of success is the main reason why employers are taking another look at return-to-work programs.