5 myths about returning to work after a disability
Carl was 58 when he found out he needed a hip replacement, and the environmental services worker was told he’d be out of work for three months to recover.
But less than eight weeks after his surgery, Carl was back on the job. It wasn’t because he couldn’t pay his bills without a paycheck — his short-term disability insurance through his employer helped with that. Instead, it was for two reasons: One, he was eager to get back to his normal life, and two, his employer was willing to support a plan for a gradual transition back to his usual duties. With his doctor’s approval, he worked half-days for two weeks as he built back his endurance and work stamina, and soon was working full-time again.
The result: Carl’s transition back to work over a 14-day period got him back on the job 40 days earlier than expected, based on initial estimated date. The transition plan also allowed him to return to work without needing to tap into his long-term coverage. At the same time, his employer was saved the cost of hiring and training replacement staff or paying overtime to other workers.
With a win-win like this — and it’s just one of thousands of examples I could share — you’d think all employers would be on board with return-to-work strategies. Instead we’ve found a surprising number of employers, human resources professionals and even benefits experts have misperceptions about return-to-work and the accommodations that can make it successful. And it’s hitting them and their employees hard on the bottom line.
Here are five of the most common myths about returning to work after a disability. See how many you mistakenly believe.
1. It’ll create a workers’ compensation claim. Some employers are afraid an employee who’s had a disabling injury will be a safety risk, getting reinjured on the job and creating a costly workers’ comp claim. The reality is a gradual transition back to full-time work makes employees safer as they regain strength and rebuild skills.
2. We don’t have to provide accommodations unless the injury happened at work.
This one’s not true, either, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Council. Employers legally can’t differentiate between employees who suffer a disabling injury at work and those who’re injured at home or elsewhere. Smart employers focus on getting a valuable employee back to work, not the injury or illness and where it happened.
3. Employees must be 100% or they can’t perform productive work. Employers willing to be creative often find there are many tasks a skilled, knowledgeable employee can perform during a transition period. True, some jobs have more rigid requirements than others. For example, a nurse might not be physically able to go straight back to patient care. But if you’re like most of us, you have a stockpile of back-burner projects that would benefit your business. A transitioning employee could have the perfect skills to take those on. In other cases, simple, inexpensive accommodations can help an employee perform better: An assembly line worker who can’t stand for an eight-hour shift could use a leaning stool for support and be just as productive.
4. Customer care or service will be negatively impacted. This one might seem logically true, but it really isn’t when you crunch the numbers. Accommodating a returning employee with part-time hours or different duties for a period of time has less impact on service and productivity than hiring, training and ramping up replacement staff. Routinely cross-training employees in other jobs also gives employers the flexibility to move resources where they’re needed at any time.
5. Other employees will also want “light duty.” This may not exactly qualify as a myth, as some employees really might want what they perceive as easier work. The issue is the term light duty itself, which is both loaded and vague. Effective communication is essential here: Consistently refer to new, alternate or modified job tasks, be transparent, and make sure employees understand return-to-work options. Having a return-to-work program where employees feel valued impacts the morale of the whole team, boosting productivity.
How to make return-to-work work well
Helping your valued employees rejoin your team doesn’t have to be costly or difficult. Here are a few tips to make it successful.
Communicate early and often. Meet or talk with the employee before the leave and stay in touch while on leave. Talk before the return to work to set expectations.
Be flexible. Consider a graduated return-to-work plan to allow the employee to ramp up to full time. Allow work at home for part of the day or week, if possible. Make hours flexible to allow for medical appointments.
Be welcoming. Meet with the employee upon return, and ensure the manager conducts regular one-to-one meetings with the employee. Allow the employee time to reintegrate, perhaps with the aid of a mentor.
Focus on the job, not the illness or injury. Instead of asking the employee how he or she is feeling, ask how the company can better assist him or her in performing the essential functions of the job.
Be creative. Avoid making assumptions about what the returning employee can do. Flexible work arrangements, accessible technology or inexpensive adaptations can often help the employee do the job in alternate ways.