Return to work programs on the rise

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A growing number of employers are offering return to work programs for their workers to accommodate the growing demands of their workforce — especially younger employees.

According to a recent Prudential Financial report, 55% of employers are implementing or have already implemented accommodations to assist employees in returning to work from a leave of absence. That number has increased since 2013, which is the most recent year that Prudential has on record. That year, 31% of employers reported that they were adopting those programs; it was 23% in 2012.

According to Kristin Tugman, vice president, health and productivity analytics and consultation for Prudential Financial and an author of a report based on the Prudential study, an established return to work program that is supported by the employer’s CEO, HR executive and management, has a two-fold impact.

“It allows for an employee to understand how they will return to work. The longer people are out of work, the more anxious they become about their ability to return and perform as they once did,” she says. “The other piece is it’s healthier for people to incrementally return to work over a transition period.”

Millennial employees are more likely to ask for workplace accommodations than their Generation X and baby boomer counterparts, Prudential found. Nearly a quarter of employees between the ages of 18 to 34 (24%) have made workplace accommodation request due to a leave of absence, health condition, or disability, compared to 13% of Generation Xers and 14% of baby boomers.

That’s because, Tugman says, younger workers see less stigma in asking for time off from work or modified work duties or workplace modifications from employers.

“They’re much more willing to report the need for an accommodation versus the older generations who [feel that] they have to stick it out,” she says. Older workers “wouldn't feel comfortable disclosing that they might have some sort of disability.”

She adds, “baby boomers are certainly of the generation that go to work and you’re there at least from 9 to 5 if not longer and you have to be seen in the office. You sort of suck it up and do your job and you don’t complain.”

Though millennials are a big part of why employers are implementing return to work programs, it isn’t the only reason. The report found that employers are preparing those programs for an aging workforce. By 2020, 25% of the American workforce will be 55 year or older, which is up from 12% in 1990. As the workplace population ages, Prudential Financial predicts that the number of workers with disabilities will increase.

Still, the report found that 16% of employer respondents are not taking actions to offer return to work accommodations and 23% are not considering any such measures. Employers gave five reasons for not implementing a return to work plan:

Low incidence of disability
Lack of management resources
Prohibitive costs
Employees need to be 100% recovered to return to work
Accommodations only available for workplace injuries

Employers may know that having a return to work program will benefit their employees, but mid-level managers’ concerns of meeting work deadlines often inhibit employees adopting these benefits, Tugman explains.

“We know that the first thing managers think is “I can't have somebody back on the floor at less than 100%,” she says. “For an HR team to find the time and wherewithal to make that argument to managers can be overwhelming. A lot of times it sits on a list of priorities and often gets pushed to the backburner unless HR has support from senior management.”

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