Consider the unavoidable: Some percentage of a company’s employees will experience an illness or disability in any given year. For many employers, providing disability income insurance (DI) is the only solution for dealing with absent workers.
It’s a passive role, though, with the company waiting for the employee to return to work. In the meantime, co-workers or temporary staff try to cover their absent colleague’s duties. Employee morale, customer service and productivity might suffer, but that’s expected when an experienced employee is out—or is it?
More employers are rejecting this laissez-faire approach by implementing return-to-work (RTW) programs for employees. In 2007, 39% of plan sponsors said they were involved in RTW initiatives to some extent. That number had grown to 45% by 2010, according to Prudential’s Fifth Annual Study of Employee Benefits.
The Value of RTW
RTW programs can help save costs and boost morale, both of which can lead to increased employee productivity. Today, companies are running lean and absences impose both additional direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include wages and benefits paid to absent employees; indirect costs include lost productivity, expenses of hiring and training replacement workers, and the risk of disrupting customer relationships.
The study found that RTW programs can cut these costs:
• 66% of employers providing accommodations to assist employees in returning to work reported that the strategy succeeded at providing the desired cost savings;
• 38% said it had been highly successful. At one large financial services company where Prudential provided enhanced rehabilitation services to disabled employees, the company saved an average $52,800 benefit expense per year for every 1,000 employees.
It’s difficult to place a numeric value on employee morale, but consider the employees’ perspective. RTW programs help returning employees focus on what they can rather than can’t do and provide the structure to support that transition.
This gives disabled employees the opportunity to retain job skills and bring their income closer to pre-disability levels. Getting back to work sooner in some capacity increases the morale of both the affected workers and their coworkers, particularly those coworkers who had been covering the absent employees’ duties in addition to their own.
Reducing the amount of time an employee is out of work on short-term disability is the most pressing issue for employers. Staffing, including absent employees, affect employers’ ability to meet the business demands of their customers.
Multiple Approaches to RTW
RTW programs recognize that although an employee may have limitations, what matters are the person’s capabilities, not disabilities. Each case consequently calls for an individual plan to get the employee back to work based on his or her circumstances. RTW programs reintegrate employees into the workplace through various accommodations that can include:
Assist-at-Work: Depending on the medical issue, it may be possible for an employee to keep working at least part-time during the initial illness period, without having to go out on full disability.
Workplace modification: This can include workstation adjustments, computer software or equipment, vehicle modification, or communication devices.
Flexible location and hours or both: Employees allowed to work from home or on a personal schedule that can be temporary or permanent.
Modified duty: Change or reduction in work responsibilities. Transitional work assignment: Employees can often return to work sooner by temporarily taking on another job within the department or organization as long as it complies with all medical restrictions.
Work hardening program: Using real or simulated tasks and conditioning exercises or therapies to provide a transition between acute care and successful return to work.
Overcoming Myths to Implement RTW
Your plan-sponsor clients’ involvement with RTW probably varies considerably. Some may offer DI with partial disability coverage but lack formal RTW provisions and arrangements. Others may permit ad hoc worksite modifications, flexible hours or work-from-home arrangements or transitional work assignments.
A small number might have full RTW policies and programs with dedicated RTW resources and employee-absence tracking capabilities. Before you can help clients expand their RTW programs, however, you’re likely to encounter objections, such as:
“Bringing employees back to work who have not fully recovered to pre-disability levels increases the risk that they will have on-the job injuries, which will increase our liability.”
Reality: RTW programs aim to minimize risk of relapse or recurrence. A job description and physician’s consultation can help identify employees who are ready to return, but with some accommodation. By monitoring employees with RTW assignments, an employer may actually make a positive impact on these individuals’ ability to increase function and thereby decrease risk.
“We don’t have the budget or resources to implement an RTW program.”
Most organizations cannot afford to not implement an RTW program due to the direct and indirect costs of absence. Most worksite accommodations are inexpensive, and savings from an RTW program can offset the expense of implementation. Plus, an organization may be able to utilize existing rehabilitation provisions in its disability contract or worksite accommodation benefits.
“Our Human Resources department doesn’t have the training or expertise needed to implement and monitor an RTW program.”
Employers and their staff can develop a partnership with their disability, health care, and/or workers’ compensation carrier to support RTW efforts. Insurance carriers may have services or tools they can provide to help an employer with their RTW program.
“Our front-line supervisors are already too busy—they can’t handle the additional responsibilities of managing an RTW program.”
Implementing an RTW program does require engagement of front-line supervisors in the short term. However, in the long run, successful RTW programs may shorten absence durations and decrease supervisors’ time spent back-filling critical roles. Additional benefits may include improved morale, less overtime, and fewer people covering two jobs.
Most managers would prefer to have RTW procedures to follow when an unexpected absence occurs, so they can be proactive and spend less time wondering what happens next.
Andrew Sullivan is senior vice president of disability and small markets business at the Prudential group insurance unit.