7 Principles for Successful Return to Work

By Kurina Baksh
Last updated: August 27, 2020
Key Takeaways

Return-to-work programs increase productivity while minimizing costs.

According to the Institute for Work and Health Studies, in 2014 approximately 58 percent of injured workers in Ontario who filed claims were offered return-to-work plans within one month of being injured. However, only 76 percent of these workers accepted the return-to-work offers. Workers who refused the offers cited that they were either not physically ready to go back to work or that they were following their doctors’ recommendations as the reasons for refusal. Workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses can be very costly to employers and employees, as well as compensation partners. Thus, a return-to-work program can ensure that employees obtain the necessary medical care both during the initial stages of recovery, as well as during the subsequent recommencement of employment.


What Is “Return-To-Work”?

Return-to-work is a proactive approach undertaken by many employers to ensure that their injured workers are restored to their normal lifestyle in the most effective, efficient and safest manner—as early as possible. Return-to-work plans are designed based on an injured worker’s individual needs.

What Are the Benefits of Introducing Return-To-Work Programs?

Some of the benefits of implementing a workplace return-to-work program include:

  • Reducing the financial burden on employers
  • Reducing the financial burden on workers, as well as their families
  • Quicker recovery and restoration of injured workers’ lifestyles, reducing the length of time off work
  • Allowing for employers to work with health care providers to develop more specialized treatment plans for injured employees
  • Minimizing long-term workers’ compensation and insurance costs

The Seven Principles

In 2004, the Institute for Work and Health conducted a systematic review of the return-to-work literature published since 1990 and developed seven principles for successful return to work based on the most effective workplace-based return-to-work interventions.

Principle 1

"The workplace has a strong commitment to health and safety, which is demonstrated by the behaviours of the workplace parties"

Studies have shown that positive behaviours in the workplace are associated with good return-to-work outcomes. Positive behaviours include management’s willingness to invest resources to promote safety, as well as both management and employee’s commitment to safety issues.

Principle 2

“The employer makes an offer of modified work (also known as work accommodation) to injured/ill workers so they can return early and safely to work activities suitable to their abilities”

Accommodated work has been cited as a core element of disability management, which leads to favourable return-to-work outcomes. However, most researchers believe that is best to return an employee to his/her own work area where the environment, people and practices are familiar.


Principle 3

“Return-to-work planners ensure that the plan supports the returning worker without disadvantaging co-workers and supervisors”

Return-to-work planning involves a lot more than matching the injured employee’s physical restrictions to a job accommodation. For example, if an employee feels that he/she is disadvantaged by the return-to-work plan, it can lead to resentment.

Principle 4

“Supervisors are trained in work disability prevention and included in return-to-work planning”

Supervisors play a crucial role with regards to the success of return-to-work programs. This can be attributed to their close work relationship to the employee, as well as their ability to manage the immediate return-to-work work environment.

Principle 5

“The employer makes early and considerate contact with injured/ill workers”

Early contact (contact within the first week or two) is considered to be a core component of most disability management programs. As a consequence, it results in more favourable return-to-work outcomes. The immediate supervisor should make this contact as this would signify that the employer cares about the well-being of the employee.

Principle 6

“Someone has the responsibility to coordinate return-to-work”

Successful return-to-work programs employ the use of a return-to-work coordinator, which is either external or internal to the company. Simply put, the return-to-work coordinator is responsible for coordinating the return-to-work process. According to the Institute for Work and Health Studies, a return-to-work coordinator must:

  • Provide individualized planning and coordination that is adapted to the employee’s initial and on-going needs
  • Ensure that the necessary communication does not break down at any point
  • Ensure that the employee and other return-to-work players (co-workers, supervisors/managers, health-care providers, disability managers and insurers) understand what to expect and what is expected of them

Principle 7

“Employers and health-care providers communicate with each other about the workplace demands, as needed, and with the worker’s consent”

Frequent communication between employers and health care providers has been shown to reduce the duration of time an injured or ill employee is off work. Employees often look to their physicians for return-to-work advice, especially as it relates to their physical condition. According to the Institute for Work and Health Studies, the degree and nature of the contact between the workplace and health-care providers can vary depending on individual circumstances, including:

  • Paper-based information exchange (e.g. information on job demands and/or work accommodation options sent to the family doctor by the employer)
  • Telephone conversation about work and job demands (initiated by either party)
  • Workplace visit by a health care provider to view the work activities and converse directly with the employer

Employer Obligations and Return-To-Work Programs

All employers have a duty to develop and implement return-to-work programs at their workplace. These programs should consist of a formal policy, as well as procedures, which can help injured workers with their recovery so that they can get back to work and restore their normal lifestyle as quickly as possible. Further, employers must ensure that the program is clearly communicated to their employees. Therefore, when developing a return-to-work program, it is important that employers consult with their employees throughout the entire process.

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Written by Kurina Baksh

Kurina Baksh

Kurina Baksh is a Health, Safety and Environment Professional from Trinidad and Tobago. As a recent graduate in the field, she is trained to analyze and advise on a wide range of issues related to her area of expertise. Currently, she is an independent consultant who develops public outreach and education programmes for an international clientele. She strongly believes that increasing public outreach and education can promote hazard awareness and ultimately save lives.

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