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Strengthen Your Return-to-Work Program in 4 Steps

Many companies are taking a renewed look at their return-to-work (RTW) strategies to better accommodate employees and meet regulatory requirements, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and to advance environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices. As they build out their programs, employers are navigating overlapping obligations related to absence management and compliance—and while many do have processes in place, they are still not creating a best practice model.

These are four steps can help companies  strengthen their programs and realize tangible outcomes:


Companies that adopt these strategies for RTW programs tend to be more action-oriented, compliant, and coordinated—which ultimately has benefits for both employees and employers.


1. Create a framework

Many employers have policies in place, but not best practices. Too often, companies are relying on traditional, outdated manuals rather than a more practical, results-oriented framework for action. By simplifying processes and focusing on best practices across the continuum of absence management, RTW programs can be less of an administrative burden and rather a consistent and compliant practice across the organization.

A framework should fit a company’s culture and is designed with their overall objectives in mind – there is no one-size-fits-all approach. To get started, roles and responsibilities should be defined. Employers should identify the integrated team, along with where they should connect and where their work may overlap. In addition, the framework should include an established elevation panel to manage integrated RTW strategies when an employer has a team of subject matter experts to consult as they navigate their employment, benefits and workers’ compensation obligations. The panel should include, for example, the claim administrator, broker/claim consultant, and a labor or employment attorney.


2. Break down silos

As mentioned, multiple departments within an organization play a role in the continuum of absence, in addition to compliance related to federal requirements, such as the ADA, Family and Medical Leave Act, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When these departments aren’t coordinating properly with one another, it’s more likely that mistakes and miscommunication can occur and lead to larger challenges with compliance and overall management of the employee’s path back to work.

It’s critical that the framework companies create identifies connection points across their organization and departments so that teams can work more closely to manage the process and improve outcomes. It can help guide all involved and detail what’s needed from stakeholders at each connection point. The established framework, accompanied by the policy toolkit detailed below, can help ensure that each department is approaching RTW in a consistent and compliant manner across the continuum of absence during the management effort.


3. Create a policy toolkit

Companies have numerous considerations that impact absence management, RTW programs, disability management, and compliance. Employers should remain aware of how larger business and societal trends, such as an aging workforce, ESG practices, and changes with the ADA and EEOC are trending, since those decisions can shape the recommended management process. To understand the impact of policy changes and help address multiple elements of absence management programs, companies should create an actionable toolkit of policies.

The toolkit, which will guide the process from the time of the reported event through the management continuum, can help with cost-effective, compliant and proactive approaches to managing risks. To support compliance and ADA application, it should include objectively measured job demands that guide the temporary transitional duty and interactive process application for potential reasonable accommodations. An employer can also create a master task list to support an objective process to compare physical capabilities or restrictions to the task requirements when aligning work. In addition, getting ergonomists involved should be a best practice across organizations building and improving their absence, RTW and SAW programs and establishing defined job demands.


4. Use data and analytics

Data, benchmarking, and measuring performance relative to established key performance indicators is essential for managing costs and measuring outcomes. Companies often have a wealth of data related to claims, but they don’t always utilize the information to measure their performance or make proactive decisions about their absence, RTW and SAW programs. By taking a more outcomes-driven approach and using the data at their fingertips, employers can help improve related costs and worker productivity.

To make the most of their data, companies should first determine the significant points to measure, as well as establish baseline key performance indicators. By determining those assessment points up front, employers will be able to proactively address issues if measurements fall short of their success baseline, as well as replicate any areas where they’re exceeding their performance targets.


The lingering COVID-19 pandemic is also impacting RTW programs, largely because of the economic factors that are affecting businesses, including a reduction in their workforce or benefits programs. For instance, a workers’ compensation claim alongside layoffs at an organization raises the question of whether the employee will go on unemployment or be paid workers’ compensation wage loss benefits. While companies will need to navigate the pandemic’s impact, they should consider prioritizing the building of a sophisticated, modern, best-practice RTW model—it will help to serve the employer, and their employees, better over the long term.