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Workers' Compensation

Best Practices for Return-to-Work Programs

When managed properly, return-to-work programs benefit employers and employees alike.

February 8, 2024

When employees suffer an injury that prevents them from performing their normal tasks for a set period because of a doctor’s directions, many companies allow them to remain home and collect payments through workers’ compensation or short-term disability programs. However, those employees are often well enough to perform other job-related tasks long before they can return to their normal roles.

Eliminating injuries and illnesses is paramount for reducing workers’ compensation costs, but after an incident, a return-to-work (RTW) program can significantly reduce workers’ compensation costs for employers and improve employees' lives by getting them back to work. This post provides an overview of RTW programs and discusses the best practices for establishing and maintaining them.

What Is a Return-to-Work Program?

An RTW program is characterized by specific, documented organizational policies and procedures that guide supervisors and employees in managing the RTW process following a work-related absence due to injury, illness or chronic disease. Its primary goal is to expedite the individual’s recovery and reintegrate them into productivity, achieved through various means such as referral, counseling, coordination of medical care, or adjustments to the workplace or job responsibilities. RTW programs may also include vocational rehabilitation services alongside transitional work options to facilitate a smooth return to full productivity.

While an RTW program may or may not be integrated with other benefits or absence management services, such integration is highly recommended. Reasons for implementing an RTW program include reducing lost time, accounting for ethical considerations, ensuring compliance with legal requirements and safeguarding the organization’s workforce investment.

Why Establish a Return-to-Work Program?

RTW programs can be a significant source of relief for employees grappling with concerns, anxieties and frustrations stemming from workplace injuries and illnesses. An employer’s proactive outreach and support during these challenging times can foster a positive connection between the injured worker and the organization.

Numerous benefits are linked to establishing RTW programs for employees:

  • Helping injured workers return to their jobs quickly, preventing the significant likelihood they wouldn’t after a six-month absence
  • Providing a structured mechanism for addressing workplace challenges, even during an injured worker’s return
  • Demonstrating a commitment to supporting employee well-being and ensuring a smoother recovery after workplace injuries, thereby increasing employee morale

Return-to-Work Best Practices

Whether developing an RTW program for the first time or modifying an existing program, employers should follow these best practices to ensure their RTW program is effective:

  • Consider the basics. When developing an RTW program, employers should ensure it is consistent and aligned with organizational values. Employers should review state-specific laws, outline the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the program, and set clear expectations.
  • Put it in writing. Employers should document their RTW policies and procedures.
  • Establish an RTW contact person. Establish a contact person that an injured employee can reach out to with questions.
  • Inform employees. Train employees on the workers’ compensation claim procedures and the RTW program. Help them understand how the RTW program is a benefit to their recovery.
  • Create and implement a safety committee. Safety committees help identify and find solutions to hazards causing injuries and illnesses.
  • Develop functional job descriptions. Employers should create functional job descriptions explaining the physical demands of specific job tasks. This also includes the movements necessary for each job task. This helps employers place employees who are returning to work from a work-related injury.
  • Modify job tasks. Employers should evaluate an employee’s condition when they are returning to work from an injury. The workplace should also be evaluated to adjust the environment for the employee while they are healing from the injury. If an employee cannot return to work in their previous capacity, then the employer should determine the employee's skill set to see where they can work within the company if positions are available.
  • Develop individual plans. Employers should create personalized RTW strategies that outline the necessary actions for an employee to resume their pre-injury position. In larger organizations, this plan should be formulated collaboratively by the program coordinator, the injured employee, the employee’s supervisor, the healthcare provider, the union representative and legal counsel, if applicable.
  • Maintain a job duty bank. Employers should have a list of jobs employees can be placed into when they have restrictions from a work-related injury. These jobs should be well thought out and coordinated with a doctor’s restrictions. This helps employees get back to work quicker and more efficiently.
  • Communicate. Early and frequent contact with injured workers is essential. Employers should continue to communicate with employees who have been injured during their time away from work and when they come back to work. Communication is essential for the passing of information and employee morale.
  • Integrate and coordinate with all stakeholders. Employers should avoid the silo mentality while maintaining a focus on the well-being of employees. Furthermore, RTW initiatives must have senior leadership backing to succeed.
  • Monitor, evaluate and adjust the program. Employers should review their programs annually by looking at the measurements they should have in place. Employers should be setting up ways to gather the important data needed to review the RTW program. Once the information is obtained, employers should continue to adjust the program where necessary.

Goals of a Return-to-Work Program

An RTW program helps employers save money on workers’ compensation costs. For employees, participation in an RTW program can aid in recovery, allowing them to resume work as they recuperate and often fostering a sense of physical and emotional progress. Prolonged absences may lead to employee disengagement from the workplace, with physical ailments potentially transitioning into emotional distress, resulting in extended recovery periods.

Extended absences diminish the likelihood of employees returning to their original positions. While complex conditions may necessitate prolonged leave, experts acknowledge a culture of absence that can cause employees to remain out of work due to disengagement. Some employees may find benefits in not working, while others may become detached from their former identities, eventually losing motivation to rejoin the workforce. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate act of fraud but rather a lack of desire to return, which can exacerbate their situations, contributing to emotional or physical challenges.

Employers, on the other hand, initiate RTW programs for various reasons, such as:

  • Managing benefit costs efficiently
  • Creating a more employee-focused process
  • Bolstering managers’ ability to achieve optimal productivity

The foundational goals of an RTW program should be clearly articulated from the outset, with periodic reassessment. Some objectives may be met, prompting the need for more ambitious targets. Others may require adjustment to align with evolving corporate needs.

While all program goals hold significance, cost reduction is a prevalent objective. Savings can be realized through several mechanisms and incentives that establish and sustain an RTW program, even if quantifying these benefits may initially pose challenges. Organizations can achieve savings through:

  • Decreased costs related to employee absence (e.g., disability, workers’ compensation)
  • Reduced expenses associated with replacement workers (e.g., training, recruitment, team dynamics)
  • Lowered medical claim costs
  • Diminished litigation expenses
  • Early detection of fraudulent claims
  • Heightened awareness of injury prevention and safety protocols
  • Enhanced employee morale, potentially leading to decreased turnover

Well-crafted processes and plans offer a mutually advantageous solution for both employees and employers.


RTW programs aren’t just about reinstating employees in their specific roles, although that’s the ideal scenario. Not only do these programs provide many advantages to employers, but they also encompass the involvement of employees in alternative positions as stepping stones toward full-time, full-duty work or as a means for them to remain engaged during their periods of disability. To do this, employers should follow best practices to build the most efficient and effective RTW program possible.

Related Reading: Strategies to Protect Employees and Profitability

The above information does not constitute advice. Always contact your insurance broker or trusted advisor for insurance-related questions.

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