Updated: July 19, 2022

Return to Work Programs: Definition & Tips

This is a guide to Return-to-Work programs.

Return-to-Work programs are rules and standards companies design to help employees who took a work break resume their jobs and reintegrate into the workforce. The company’s Return-to-Work (RTW) program provides guidelines for employees to work in a provisional, restricted, or light-duty role until they can resume their regular duties.

Both the employee and the business may benefit from a well-designed Return-to-Work program. Organizations retain competent personnel, reduce short- and long-term disability claims, lift employee morale, and ensure financial security for injured employees.

These programs are similar to returnships.

This post includes:

  • the definition of the Return-to-Work program
  • benefits of a Return-to-Work Program
  • getting started with a Return-to-Work Program
  • Return-to-Work program tips
  • examples of Return-to-Work programs

Let’s get to it!

Definition of the Return-to-Work program

Injured, sick, or disabled employees may be eligible for a Return-to-Work program. The program allows individuals to Return-to-Work as soon as they are medically capable. In some instances, the company can adjust the employee’s original job functions with light-duty accommodations or even a temporary role elsewhere in the organization. Following the worker’s recovery, the ultimate purpose of an RTW program is to reassign the worker to their previous position.

Implementing a formal RTW program is essential for many reasons. To begin with, it is more probable that an injured worker will never Return-to-Work if their workers’ compensation case drags on for more than six months. Unresolved cases cost businesses money and mean losses in workers’ earnings. Incorporating RTW into a company’s overall strategy may help save expenses while ensuring employee retention.

Disability leave expenditures are lower if an injured worker returns to work sooner than later. Existing employees do not require training, saving the company money and time. These programs also guarantee that firms comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, and other workplace safety and disability laws.

An RTW program ensures the worker starts getting their previous earnings early and reduces the need for disability benefits. Through these programs, workers can update their skills and still participate actively in the company.

Benefits of a Return-to-Work Program

The advantages of implementing an RTW program include:

1. Reduced costs

One significant advantage of Return-to-Work programs is that it saves businesses a lot of money in the long term. Reduced workers’ compensation cost means the company can avoid hiring a new employee. Replacing an injured employee costs money and time. Recruiting, interviewing, and employing new employees and providing them with on-the-the-job training may take months. By the time your new employee reaches maximum productivity, a previously-injured and regular employee may already be back at work.

Even if an injured employee works part-time until they heal completely, they still contribute to your company’s performance.

A Return-to-Work program can help businesses plan for workers’ leave and return. For instance, if a worker is on leave due to injury, you might spend thousands of dollars in compensation claims if you do not restore their job. In addition, your company’s premiums will go up depending on the claim’s worth.

2. Reduce employee turnover

You will have low employee turnover since the firm will not need to recruit and commit resources to new employee training. The industry and position have a significant impact on the cost of turnover. Some experts believe that the more specialized a task is, the more expensive it is to hire for the role. Hiring and training a new employee for mid-range or executive-level positions can cost up to 2 years’ worth of the salary for that role.

Remaining at home for a lengthy time may discourage injured employees from returning to work. As soon as a person can work again, it is in your best interest to keep them around.

3. Boost employee morale

Employees want to know they have the company’s support in return for their time and effort. Injuries and diseases are often inevitable in the workplace. However, it is not a wise corporate practice to fire trustworthy workers when misfortune hits.

First, workers will hardly perform optimally if they do not trust the company’s presence in times of need. You show that your company appreciates and values the employee’s expertise by creating a Return-to-Work program. It would help if you also educated employees on how the program works and the expectations. The company shows employees that workers can take time off to recover and still have a job is waiting for them when they are ready. While this modest gesture may not seem like a lot, it may go a long way toward boosting employee morale and productivity.

Here are more ways to boost staff morale.

4. Employee-Employer Collaboration

A Return-to-Work program may help you improve cooperation or collaboration with your employees. Engagement and contentment are higher when a company’s values sync with its employees’ values. A Return-to-Work program is a great way to show your employees how much you care about them and what they do for you.

5. Eliminates stress and uncertainty

Workers who have a Return-to-Work plan are usually less anxious or stressed. Injured or sick employees may worry about paying their bills if no clear Return-to-Work plan exists. The worker might be afraid that their boss will find replacements and even return to work before recovery. Unrelenting anxiety over one’s career and financial well-being is a poor way to heal. A good Return-to-Work program allows workers to relax. Because these team members know that their jobs will be waiting for them after they recover, the workers can concentrate on healing and regaining full strength.

A Return-to-Work program may guarantee that an organization retains an absent employee. The more reassurance a worker gets, the more confident they will be in their decision not to leave. Consequently, these individuals are more inclined to return since they know precisely what awaits. Your workers will lack the feeling of security they need if you do not have a Return-to-Work strategy in place.

6. Restore a sense of normality

Injured or ill workers benefit from Return-to-Work programs because they provide a feeling of normality. The thought of returning can motivate employees and cause them to dwell less on the present. A Return-to-Work before complete healing may be possible, with the employee working part-time or performing less-demanding tasks. This step ensures a smoother transition back into employment since workers can see their abilities and limitations.

Getting Started with a Return-to-Work Program

If your company wants to create a return-to-work strategy, then your starting point is the workers’ compensation insurer. Many insurance companies provide guidance and guidelines on putting up a plan. In addition, some insurers have a formalized RTW program.

Office of Disability Employment Policy, a US Department of Labor division, has a useful resource on Return-to-Work programs that provides guidance. The Return-to-Work Tool Kit from ODEP may help you better understand returning to work after an absence. The Job Accommodation Network, a free service, is also available. The Job Accommodation Network can help you determine the appropriate workplace modifications in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The disabilities act makes provisions for workers with on-the-job injuries.

Additionally, an RTA program must adhere to the Family Medical Leave Act, OSHA regulations, and state workers’ compensation legislation.

An RTW program’s goal is to return injured workers to work as soon as feasible. Having documented protocols defining exactly what your employees will do from the moment an accident happens until the employee returns to work is critical to achieving this aim. The best practices for getting injured workers back to work include the following:

1. Talk to the Employee

Once you know about the injury, speak with the employee immediately. You can help the worker understand the available workers’ compensation plans and assist with the claim form. Take care to explain how the workers might benefit from your company’s Return-to-Work (RTW) practices. Then, maintain regular contact with the injured worker throughout the recovery period.

2. Determine important job functions

It is important to determine the basic work responsibilities that the employee must be able to perform with or without accommodation. The manager and the employee should agree on these duties. Employees can avoid doing non-essential tasks until they have fully recovered. For example, a factory worker must be able to get the machine running. However, the manager can delegate lubrication to another employee temporarily.

You must know the worker’s abilities and limitations. Be sure to also get an assessment from the employee’s doctor and find out what activities to restrict.

3. Consider accommodations

Find out what accommodations are available and discuss them with the employee. Screen reader software, an ergonomic desk, and a part-time work schedule are all examples of accommodations. These concessions may not necessarily be expensive.

Employers can make a job offer to the employee to gauge interest in returning. You can present lower-level employment or temporary work as an option if the worker cannot return to their regular job, with or without accommodation.

It also helps to keep track of the employee’s progress. As soon as the employee returns to work, make sure they have adequate support. As the worker’s condition improves, you may need to change or amend the arrangements.

4. Put the final touches

You should create detailed written instructions to ensure that your employees know what you expect. For example, the employee analyzing an injured worker’s job will need to learn how to differentiate between essential and non-essential tasks. The worker evaluating accommodations will also need training. Workers with disabilities may request an accommodation, and your supervisors will need the training to handle this situation.

Employees must be able to handle the Return-to-Work procedures. An excellent place to start is recruiting an experienced coworker to take on the Return-to-Work Coordinator role. It is up to this leader to keep an eye on the whole program and ensure that every team member does their part.

The next step is to assign the duties listed above to various team members. For instance, a human resources manager can handle workers’ compensation claims forms and explain the RTW program to an injured employee. The worker’s department manager can be responsible for assisting the employee in choosing suitable accommodation.

Before executing your RTW program, you should review each position and determine the most critical responsibilities. Even with a reasonable accommodation, an injured worker will be unable to return to their previous position if they cannot perform basic functions.

Return-to-Work program tips

The following pointers may assist you in putting together and launching a successful RTW campaign.

1. Spread the word

An RTW program requires that every company’s employee be on board. The program’s major goal is to help injured or sick employees get back on their feet. Therefore, leadership must convey the program’s value and the program’s main objective. Be sure to spread the word about the initiative to everyone using workplace publications, education sessions, posters, and emails. Employees experiencing a tough time need to know that you care about them and appreciate what they do for the organization.

2. Create detailed job descriptions

It is essential to first identify the work expectations of a fully functional employee before deciding on the functions of a modified role. A healthcare provider will need the job descriptions to determine when the worker can resume and what job duties they can handle.

HR and managers must perform a thorough job analysis, including physical, sensory, and cognitive demands, frequency of use, standard tools and materials, and environmental exposures for each role in the organization.

Job modifications may take many forms, from moving a team member temporarily to a different location to allowing them to work from home on a different schedule. The adjustments could mean providing help like mechanical lifting assistance or breaks that enable a worker to relax or obtain medical attention. The most important point is to assist participants in making noteworthy contributions until they can resume their normal work schedules.

3. Comply with the Law

Every RTW program must comply with state and federal regulations such as The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Occupational Health and Safety Administration requirements, and workers’ compensation mandates. As long as an injured worker cannot perform their usual job activities, they may be eligible for disability benefits. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against such workers. The ADA requires employers to set reasonable accommodations.

4. Proper communication

One important consideration is to decide who will oversee the RTW program and ensure compliance. As part of this process, the organization should assign a point person to engage closely with participants and healthcare providers to assess changes and arrange their transitions. If a worker suffers an injury on the job, then communicate with the employee in charge of RTW to help file a workers’ compensation claim and begin the process of obtaining benefits immediately.

It is advisable to assure the affected employee that their job is safe and that they can Return-to-Work as soon as they are medically able. It would help if you discussed the employee’s options and possible return dates. Make sure to keep an eye on the returning employee.

5. Create a safety program

After a workplace accident, it is critical to take steps to prevent another occurrence. Companies can prevent injuries by reviewing workplace hazards and developing safety rules and procedures. A continual commitment to workplace safety is ongoing, not a one-time initiative.

Businesses ensure a safe and productive workplace by establishing a formal safety policy and fostering a safety-conscious workplace.

6. Use evaluation metrics

If you can figure out how many employees are out and what that means in terms of lost time and production, then you can begin to assess the value of a Return-to-Work program. You should assign your RTW coordinator to keep tabs on these stats, which you should share with all managers and team members. Sharing this information will ensure everyone understands the significance of the program.

Examples of Return-to-Work programs

Return-to-Work programs entail assigning light or alternative duties to workers recuperating from illness or injury. For example, supervisors can allow employees to work at a slower pace or do less physically demanding tasks as part of their regular duties. Managers can also merge the less demanding or stressful portions of multiple roles into one full-time position for the recuperating employee. This step might give other employees more time to take on special projects or neglected tasks.

A supervisor may also give a unique assignment without a strict deadline to a recuperating employee. Companies may also work with local non-profit organizations to keep their employees engaged in light duties while making a significant impact in the community.

A Return-to-Work program that incorporates these projects will be more productive and enjoyable.


Employees returning to the workforce after illness or injury might benefit from Return-to-Work programs.

After implementing your RTW program, you will need to watch its progress to make sure it is performing as planned. You can only call your program a success if every participant does their part. You and your insurance company should clearly understand your injured or sick employees’ physical health, capabilities, and work limitations.

FAQ: Return-to-Work programs

Here are answers to common questions about Return-to-Work programs.

What are Return-to-Work programs?

Return-to-Work programs are a collection of rules and standards that companies design to help employees who took a break to resume their jobs and reintegrate into the workforce.

How do you design a good Return-to-Work program?

You can design a good Return-to-Work program by talking to the employees, assigning a Return-to-Work coordinator, and creating a detailed job description.

What is the difference between a Return-to-Work program and a returnship program?

A Return-to-Work program is for current employees who have had to take a break due to injury or illness. A returnship program is for those who have been out of employment due to personal reasons.

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People & Culture Director at teambuilding.com.
Grace is the Director of People & Culture at TeamBuilding. She studied Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, Information Science at East China Normal University and earned an MBA at Washington State University.

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