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The Return-to-Work Program Done Right

By Jason Berman, National Manager, WC, Safety & Compliance, Adecco Canada and Marla Goddard, Human Resources Manager, Adecco Canada
It has been said that the best defense is a good offence, and this old adage can easily be applied to return-to-work programs. In order to implement a successful one, both prevention and early intervention are key. But first, let’s clarify what a return-to-work program is, what it is for, and what, if any, legal obligations Canadian businesses have regarding them.

The return-to-work program: Whys and legal ties

Return to work programs offer employees who suffer work-related illness or injury the opportunity to resume productive and meaningful work with their employer. Workplace parties – employers and workers – in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia, are legally obligated to cooperate in such programs, which must comply with provincial workers compensation legislation, Canadian human rights legislation, and relevant Supreme Court of Canada rulings. The aim of these programs is to return the worker in question to their old job (with the necessary accommodations made) or, if such a return is not possible, to place them in suitable and available work comparable in both nature and earnings to their old job.

Provinces and territories that are not legally obligated to re-employ workers who are injured or fall ill due to work-related reasons must still comply with federal human rights legislation and rulings by allowing such a worker to return to their old job or a similar job, so long as that worker can perform their duties and so long as any accommodations made on the employer’s part does not cause the employer undue hardship.

Despite some provinces and territories’ limited legal obligations, HRinfodesk, an online Canadian payroll and employment law compliance publication, reported in 2007 that 54% of Canadian employers they surveyed had a return-to-work program in place for both work-related and non-work-related disabilities.

Preventative measures to limit return-to-work programs

Return-to-work programs are obviously the hallmark of a fair and progressive society. Whether an organization is large, medium, or small, an effective return-to-work program should:

  • Promote recovery for the injured/ill worker and aide in finding ways for an early and safe return to work.
  • Reduce costs associated with recruiting and training replacement staff as well as the workers compensation costs of injuries. It’s estimated that worker disabilities cost Canadian businesses between $10 billion and $20 billion per year.
  • Maintain team dynamics by helping to return the injured/ill worker as quickly as possible to the team and for the team to understand and support the return-to-work process.
  • Meet legal requirements (see above).

Still, as important as a return-to-work program is, it’s even more important to take proactive steps that limit the need for it. Often, there are leading indicators prior to an actual injury or illness that highlight potential concerns, including absenteeism, the results of discomfort surveys, behavioural observations, and poor productivity and/or performance. Taking note of these changes in a worker’s behaviour, and taking action right away, can help to prevent both occupational and non-occupational lost time – and money. Also, studies have shown that the longer a worker is away from work, the less likely they are to return.

Who’s responsibility is a return-to-work program?

A successful return-to-work program is everyone’s responsibility, including the direct manager of the worker in question, the human resources and health and safety departments, healthcare providers, union representatives (where applicable), and the injured/ill worker themselves.  A team approach will have the biggest impact as all parties involved are working towards a common goal – a safe workplace and an early and safe return to work.

Checklist for an effective return-to-work program

When implementing a return-to-work program, employers must ensure the following:

  • Train all managers in workplace disability prevention.
  • Communicate the return-to-work program to all employees upon implementation as well as to an ill/injured employee at the time of their illness/injury.
  • Modify duties for an ill/injured employee, ensuring they are still meaningful, productive, safe, and within any identified restrictions as required.
  • Be flexible by tailoring the return-to-work program to the individual worker’s needs and accommodate as required (within the organization’s abilities).
  • Maintain ongoing communication with an ill/injured worker throughout their recovery and during their return to work to reinforce the value they have to the organization.
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