What do I need to know about return to work programs?

Return to work (RTW) programs are meant to help with a worker’s return to their pre-leave employment, when the worker is ready to return to work and with an appropriate transition period. Return to work programs are subject to the same general principles as for any accommodation, since a return to work program is really a specific type of accommodation program.

The mandate of return to work process should be to ensure that tasks and duties assigned in an individual Return to Work Program are meaningful and productive and have value for the worker. The Return to Work should have a rehabilitative focus. If pre-leave employment is not an option, then all of the accommodation options should be considered

Return to Work Programs should be seen as transitional and for a fixed duration. Permanent measures to support a worker who is permanently disabled are best framed as accommodation measures.

Most organizations that have benefit plans also have some form of disability insurance with a focus on rehabilitation.

Who is covered?

  • A RTW Program should include employees with permanent disabilities as well as temporary disabilities.

  • Disability insurance applies to workers who have completed six months of employment.

  • Qualifying conditions exist for workers’ compensation cases.

When does a return to work situation arise?

Typically, return to work situation arise from:

  • the return of a worker who has been receiving workers compensation;

  • the return of a worker who has been on disability insurance;

  • the return of someone who has been injured or who has become disabled, but who has not qualified for income replacement programs (workers compensation or disability insurance);

  • long term leave situations.

How does it work?

  • Return to Work Programs should lay out the steps that need to be taken to support the returning worker.

  • Return to Work discussions should ensure that the root causes of the absence from the workplace are identified and eliminated. .

  • Individual assessments are key to Return to Work Programs. These programs should not be seen as one size fits all measure but should respond to the needs of the individual’s return to work situation. In addition, work related and non work related disabilities should be treated in a similar manner.

  • Job task analysis ensures that the job duties and tasks are assessed (using job related criteria) and compared with the functional limitations of the returning worker. Typically, job task analysis will assess physical requirements of job duties (tools used, postures required, endurance...) and will involve observing workers performing job duties. In cases of psychiatric disabilities, factors such as communication, exposure to conflict, the nature of their contacts with others would also need to be assessed. The returning worker should be an active participant in the job analysis and evaluation.

  • Timeframes spelled out in the Return to Work Plan should not be arbitrary but should respect the needs of the returning worker. Having timeframes associated to key activities ensures accountability for their implementation.

  • Medical assessments should be completed by the medical practitioner who is best placed to understand the medical condition of the returning worker - her/his treating physician. Physicians may be able to provide a diagnosis and treatment - but not be able to provide a functional analysis. Additional expertise may be required. In cases where a disability insurer or workers compensation board is involved, medical information is normally provided to the insurance company or the board (not the employer), and they will normally receive more information than employers are entitled to (e.g. a diagnosis). This information must be kept confidential and detailed information should not be provided to the employer.

Return to Work Programs should be consistent with the collective agreement. On the other hand, collective agreements cannot stand in the way of the duty to accommodate

  • Early assistance can make a difference in the successful re-integration of a returning worker. As an example, some research shows that the longer a workers stays away from the workplace, the less likely they will be able to return. . At the same time, too early a return may jeopardize the rehabilitation of the returning worker or worsen the medical condition.

  • Recourse rights in return to work situations can be exercised via:

  • Disability insurance appeals (not before neutral third party);

  • Workers compensation appeals tribunals;

  • Grievances;

  • Human rights complaint.

  • The support by co-workers is critical to a successful return to work situation, particularly when the situations involve job tasks modifications or job rebundling.

September 18, 2013