How to Build Your Return to Work Program

return to work workers compensationA successful transitional duty/return to work program is much more than having an injured employee answering the telephone or sweeping the floors. Unfortunately, too many employers see a transitional duty program, also known as a return to work program as a “make work” situation for both the employer and the injured employee. This approach to a return to work program often ends in frustration for both employer and employee.


Employers who recognize the advantages of a formal return to work program are the employers who benefit the most from having one. A transitional duty program reduces the time the employee is off the job, and by providing physical activity for the employee, speeds up the recovery process. The employer receives a reduction in the cost of both medical benefits and indemnity benefits. Other advantages of an employee working in a modified duty position include:


  • The employee is able to contribute some productivity toward the company’s goals while the employee who is sitting at home contributes no productivity
  • The employee has higher morale knowing a job is waiting for him/her when they are healed as opposed to the employee being at home wondering if the company will have a job for him/her when he/she is healed
  • The employee who is physically active on the job recovers from an injury faster than an employee who is physically inactive at home
  • The employee does not develop a ‘disabled’ mindset and does not learn to expect to be paid for doing nothing
  • Employees who know that their company has a formal return to work program are much less likely to submit a fraudulent work comp claim



Develop Transitional Duty Job Description Before Injury Occurs


To build your own return to work program (or to improve your existing return to work program) start with examining the job requirements of each position within the company. A transitional duty work description should be developed for each type of job. By having a ready to go transitional duty job description before an injury occurs there is no delay in bringing the injured employee back to work in a modified duty position.


In physically demanding jobs where musculoskeletal injuries are common, some employers develop two transitional duty job descriptions for each position. The first transitional duty job description is for severe restrictions and limitations on the physical capabilities of the employee and the second job description for employees with less severe work restrictions.



Transitional Job Should Not Be Limited To Original Position


Too many employers make the mistake of limiting the transitional job to a variation of the injured employee’s original job. The transitional job can be anywhere in the company, it does not have to be in the same department or the same location. The transitional job that is different from what the employee was doing before the injury will broaden the employee’s skill set making the employee more valuable to your company in the future.



ALL Employees Should Participate in Transitional Duty


For the return to work program to be successful, the employee must cooperate and be a willing participant. The best way to ensure the employee’s cooperation and participation is for the employee to know ahead of any injury that all injured employees are automatically enrolled in the modified duty return to work program. The fastest way to destroy your return to work program is to be selective in who participates. If you pick and choose which employees will be provided transitional duty and which ones will not, you create a situation where the injured employee feels he/she is being singled out. This hurts morale and often leads to the employee hiring an attorney, which complicates the resolution of the claim.


As noted above, all employees should know that the company has a transitional duty program requirement for all injured employees. All supervisors and managers should be trained on how the return to work program works. The injured employee’s supervisor should be provided the work restrictions of the injured employee following each of the employee’s doctor appointments. This will allow the supervisor to verify the employee’s transitional duty work assignment meets the doctor’s restrictions.


The first day the injured employee is back on the job, the transitional duty work restrictions should be reviewed with the employee. It should be explained to the employee that the transitional duty job requirements will change each time the treating doctor reduces the employee’s work limitations. This prevents the employee from developing the idea that he/she is going to permanently have an easier position.


If the transitional duty position requires any training for the injured employee, the training should be provided during the first days the injured employee is in the temporary position.



Transitional Duty Should Be Temporary


The transitional duty position should be temporary. If the injured employee has not been released to full employment after 30 days, the work restrictions should be reviewed with the medical provider. Whenever possible, the employee should be given more work within the most recent work restrictions. If the work restrictions are not decreasing, the nurse case manager or the adjuster should be determining why the injured employee is not improving medically.


The employee’s attendance at medical appointments is of utmost importance. The transitional duty job should never be allowed to interfere with the employee’s medical appointments, even when the employee has multiple physical therapy appointments each week.


Be sure to share your transitional duty program with all of your business partners – especially the triage nurse, the treating doctor, the work comp adjuster, and the nurse case manager. With everyone knowing that transitional duty is a requirement at your company, you will get better buy-in from all parties.


By incorporating each of these recommendations into your return to work program, you will build a more successful return to work program.




Michael Stack - AmaxxAuthor Michael Stack, CEO Amaxx LLC. He is an expert in workers’ compensation cost containment systems and helps employers reduce their workers’ comp costs by 20% to 50%.  He works as a consultant to large and mid-market clients, is a co-author of Your Ultimate Guide To Mastering Workers Comp Costs, a comprehensive step-by-step manual of cost containment strategies based on hands-on field experience, and is founder & lead trainer of Amaxx Workers’ Comp Training Center .



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