Why ‘return to work’ plans are a crucial part of your HR strategy

As an employer, you never know when an unplanned absence might occur within your workforce. This could happen due to illness or injury suffered by your employees and could potentially cause disruption. Especially if the injured is one of your most valuable workers. That’s why it’s crucial to have a return to work plan. You must minimize disruption while allowing the affected employee to ease themselves back into work.


Why return to work plans are important


Understand trends behind absences

Apart from absence management, embedding return to work processes in your HR policies can allow you to examine the reasons behind absences. For example, return to work interviews are part of the process. So, talking to employees who have been absent due to a workplace injury can uncover insights that will help you make improvements. For instance, you may find that an employee had an accident due to hazards being poorly signposted. You can then use this finding to take measures such as investing in better signage.


Improves employees’ wellbeing

Mental health issues have been an increasing concern among businesses. These issues can lead to absences and be caused by individual employees feeling overworked or working long hours. You can minimize these stress-related absences by adjusting shift patterns or finding new ways of dividing tasks. This can be done as part of the return to work program and help individual employees avoid taking too much on.


Increases retention and productivity

Having a formal return to work policy makes your employees feel valued and listened to. It also allows you to demonstrate that you care about their health and wellbeing. It demonstrates your willingness to do whatever you can to accommodate their needs. This results in reduced staff turnover and increases your ability to retain your most skilled and experienced employees. Gradually easing your employees back into work also leads to increased overall productivity. This is because they’re still contributing to the business even though they may not be operating at full capacity, which would not have been possible if they were absent.


Elements of an effective return to work process

Workers’ compensation insurance provides medical and wage benefits, and covers rehabilitation costs for employees who become ill or injured at work. Most states require you to purchase workers’ compensation insurance if you’re a business owner with employees. Failure to do so could result in financial penalties, such as fines and payment for out-of-pocket expenses and even imprisonment. But, just as important, workers’ compensation represents a social contract between you and your workforce. Workers’ compensation insurance protects your company from civil suits made by employees injured on the job. It’s essential not to pressure an employee to return to work until their doctor says they’re ready to go back to work.


The return to work interview

As mentioned earlier, return to work interviews give you a chance to talk to your employees about their injury or illness. You will better understand what caused it. It also allows the returning employee the opportunity to clearly communicate what they are capable of, given their current condition. This conversation will help you create an individualized return to work plan that will smoothen the employee’s transition back into the workplace.


An individualized return to work plan

The circumstances of each employee will vary depending on the nature of their illness or injury. For example, for an employee with a physical injury, you might want to give them a desk job before allowing them to do more physically demanding tasks. Or you might want an employee who has been recovering from a long illness to work part-time before bringing them back to full-time hours. The most effective return to work plans are the ones tailored to an individual worker’s needs.

But, whatever the circumstance, a written return to work plan needs to include at least the following:

  • The names of all the relevant people that need to be aware of the employee’s return to work and any related work restrictions. Relevant persons include the employee’s immediate supervisor, their workers’ compensation representative, and the HR department.
  • A written acknowledgment by the employer of the restrictions placed on the employee by their doctor and the efforts you will make to observe them
  • A detailed outline of the accommodations and restrictions you’ll put in place for the employee as they transition back into work (i.e., lighter duties or shorter shift patterns)



Management of employee expectations

There may be some employees who will be very keen to prove themselves. So, there is always a danger that they’ll take on too much work. This could hamper their recovery, and they may end being absent again. To avoid this situation, make it clear to the employee that their health comes first.


Open channels of communication

Make sure you communicate regularly with your employee and their doctor. This way, every party concerned knows when the employee can return to work. Also, keep communicating the effects of the phased-in return of the employee with the rest of your team. For example, will their hours increase as a result? Will there be any changes in roles or responsibilities? Give them plenty of notices to absorb any necessary adjustments.

By creating a well-defined return to work plan as part of your HR strategy, you’ll be able to help your employees get back to work safely and healthily while minimizing disruption to your company and maintaining productivity.


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