Employee's Return To Work
Employee's Return To Work

The majority of work disability absences resolve with employees returning to work successfully.  However, some situations can be more complex and require careful planning and support for the employee and the employer, for there to be a successful return to work.

Planning For An Employee’s Return To Work

When employees return to work after a lengthy health related absence, it can be a complicated process for employers.  Not discounting that the process is even more challenging for employees, employers have many considerations to ensure that the work return is well-organized and successful.  Sometimes even the best of intentions aren’t enough to ensure the process is smooth and provides the best chance for success.

The employer has many different elements to consider:

  • How to know if the employee is ready to return
  • What the privacy restrictions of the health details are
  • What collective agreements may impact the process
  • What accommodations may be needed
  • How to manage the work role assignment through a transition

Having an effective process and policy is important.  But even when an employer has an effective process, it is critical to continually evaluate as you use your process to ensure your process is not sabotaging your employee’s chances of returning to work.  As tough, and potentially frustrating, it can be for employers to plan for the return of an employee, it can be devastating for the employee if it’s not properly planned.

What Can Happen When A Return To Work Process Isn’t Properly Planned?

There are many reasons why return to work planning can go sideways but here are the most frequent and avoidable ones:

  • Requiring a “fit for work” note by the physician. Often this comes via a form that the employer sends to the doctor. The problem is that many of these forms don’t ask the right questions.  Most physicians are not experts in deciding work disability, they are experts in health.  Physicians can tell you how your employee’s health condition affects their activities, such as lifting, standing, or concentrating.  But they are not experts on the job that your employee performs OR the adjustments and options you may have to offer.  These notes can derail the return to work plan, even when disability experts are developing an employee’s return to work plan.
  • Cold feet.  Employees who are planning to return to work after a lengthy absence are understandably nervous and uncertain about their readiness to work.  Even after a few weeks away, returning to work can feel scary.  Fears about “what ifs” can create a lot of anxiety.  This anxiety can look a lot like a health setback.  The employee needs support and confidence from knowing the answers their “what if” questions.  Cold feet can generate last minute withdrawal from the process or medical notes saying the person isn’t ready.
  • Performance management. If your employee was having difficulty with performance before the medical leave, now is not the time to emphasize that you will be watching closely.  Work performance may have been influenced by health before they left work; and if so, there are special rules on how to manage this piece.  It is best to be address the issues openly and discuss how and when performance management will be initiated.  Many employers find success in completing the return to work first, ensuring the person has adjusted back into work, then address any ongoing performance management issues.  This provides the employee with the best chance of successful return.
  • Organizational change. Particularly when a person is away for a long time, changes within the workplace can create special challenges for an employee upon return.  The rest of the organization has had time to adjust to changes together, whereas the returning employee must understand them quickly and alone.  Arrange a conversation to review specific changes with the employee, and create a plan to bring them up to speed.  This may require training if there are new procedures, introductions if there are new staff, and time to adjust to the changes.  It is also a good practice to provide updates to your employee while he/she is away from work.

These are just a few of the reasons that can derail return to work planning.  As with many things, proper planning and ongoing review of your processes can prevent you from these pitfalls. As an employer, preparing for this in advance, will help you integrate any employee back into the workforce flawlessly. The only next best option is to prevent from any workplace absences in the first place!

Diana Vissers is the Founder and Director of Corporate Services at Work to Wellness Rehabilitation Inc. – a Canadian company providing expert disability management services to Canadian customers. She is in the business of making your place of business healthy, safe and productive. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for the latest news and updates on health, wellness and integrated disability management.