Injuries and illness can happen at any time, changing lives in an instant. When valued employees can’t work, their morale and productivity can suffer, even impacting their coworkers.
Accommodating qualified individuals with disabilities is an employer responsibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Established in 1990, the federal law was created to help individuals with disabilities function in society and have access to employment. Understanding the ADA and collaborating with an employee on reasonable accommodations is a key element in a successful return-to-work (RTW) program.
“Employers should continue to improve their processes to help workers stay in their current jobs and support effective return-to-work activities,” says Alicia Heine, assistant director of product development and ADA consultant for Group Benefits at The Hartford.
“Return-to-Work programs help employees get safely back to work as soon as they are able,” she says. “It helps them protect their earning power, keeping them engaged, valued and ultimately productive.”
Heine shares eight important steps employers can take to create an effective RTW program:
1. Build a Receptive Culture
A successful RTW program begins with a workplace culture that supports employees with disabilities and their capabilities. It also requires buy-in from all team members at all levels of the organization.
To build a supportive RTW culture:
- Involve senior leadership. Having a champion at the top of your organization is an essential first step.
- Encourage collaboration and open, honest communication among supervisors and employees. Help employees understand the importance of their job and their contributions to organizational goals. Show sincere concern to those who face difficulties. These actions build trust and understanding, showing employees that you value them and what they do.
- Provide support services such as ergonomic equipment or flexible work schedules to help employees with a medical condition stay at work or return to work safely and swiftly. With the right support, this could happen even before a full recovery.
2. Create a Policy and Process
There are many factors to consider when implementing a RTW program, such as your business rules regarding medical accommodation; how the program will be administered; and the procedures to follow when an illness or injury occurs, from onset until the employee returns to work. Put your policy and procedures down in writing and bring in legal counsel to ensure they’re compliant with municipal, state and federal laws.
3. Assign a RTW Coordinator
Once you’ve established your procedures, you’ll need a trusted employee to carry them out. The RTW coordinator oversees the program and ensures that all personnel perform their assigned duties. Your coordinator might be a member of your HR or medical staff, or other personnel with a solid understanding of company jobs, personnel policies and procedures.
4. Get the Word Out
Routinely communicate the program’s purpose, benefits and procedures to all employees through company newsletters, email, posters and meetings. Also build RTW training into your onboarding process so new employees are aware of the program from their first day on the job.
5. Create Detailed Job Descriptions
In case job modifications ever need to be made, it’s important to first establish the requirements and expectations of the position for an able-bodied employee. Create functional job descriptions for all employees that include essential duties and physical requirements, including the frequency of performing various functions and expected outcomes. The more specific the job description, the easier it will be to determine an ill or injured employee’s abilities and restrictions. If an employee has a disability, the ADA requires employers to review accommodations to see if an employee could perform the essential functions of a job with or without an accommodation. For this reason, it’s important to have the essential job functions documented.
Once the job description is created, employers must periodically review the essential duties of the job to ensure they’re still current. An ideal opportunity to update essential duties is during an employee’s yearly job evaluation. It helps give the employer a more accurate picture of what modifications can be made for that job when necessary.
6. Communicate To Build Connections
When an employee is out with an injury or illness, early and regular communication is a vital responsibility of the RTW coordinator. Employees who feel connected to their employer are more likely to feel valued.
This contact can be a simple check-in to see how the employee is doing, a card to say hello, or a conversation to discuss options and potential timeframes for returning. It’s important for the employee to feel the support and engage with their supervisor as well.
7. Modified Duties Help With Transition
Modified-duty positions can help workers transition back to full productivity over time. These also may be considered accommodations under the ADA, allowing the employer to accommodate the disability and the worker’s ability.
Modifications can include:
- Reduction in work hours
- Reduced/shortened workweek
- Telecommuting or work-from-home arrangement
- Midday or periodic breaks from work
- Ergonomic adjustments to the employee’s workspace
- Adjustment to the employee’s location or environment
8. Coordinate the Employee’s Return To Work
The supervisor is usually the key to an employee’s successful return to work, but they’ll need your guidance on these important questions:
- Who can help the supervisor coordinate the many aspects of the employee’s return to work? This means making sure the supervisor is aware of the ADA, including the importance of accommodating individuals who have a disability.
- Does the supervisor have the knowledge and ability to make and implement the appropriate job accommodations? If not, who can provide the necessary expertise? This is often done by the return-to-work coordinator.
- Are there other jobs in the company the employee could do until they are able to resume their former role?
- How should the supervisor answer questions that may arise from coworkers about the returning employee’s “special treatment”?
Supportive communication is also a vital part of the employee’s transition back to the workplace. Both the supervisor and RTW coordinator should check in with returning employees to ensure they have what they need during their initial days back on the job and as they work their way back to full capacity. Employees need to know that the workplace team values them and their abilities, even if they’ve been out for some time.
For more information, listen to our educational podcast series on the ADA: