Updated: September 11, 2023

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, or 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!

The definition of the return-to-work program

A return-to-work program is an initiative that helps existing employees return to the office after extended leaves of absence, such as medical, disability, or parental leave. These programs benefit both employees and employers by ensuring a seamless transition back to work.

Key components of a return-to-work program include personalized plans for returning employees, gradual increases in responsibilities and work hours, and access to necessary resources like workplace adjustments or additional training. Ongoing communication between the employee, their supervisor, and HR personnel is essential to minimize any stress associated with returning to work.

Well-designed return-to-work programs demonstrate an employer’s commitment to employee well-being, promote inclusivity, and contribute to a positive workplace culture. These programs also retain experienced employees, foster long-term career development, and ensure a diverse and engaged workforce.

Benefits of a return-to-work program

The advantages of implementing an RTW program include the following.

1. Ensures compliance

Compliance refers to the organization’s willingness to follow relevant employment laws, regulations, and policies. These provisions include ensuring that companies respect employees’ rights and any required accommodations, such as those mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Compliance minimizes the risk of legal issues and disputes from improper treatment of returning employees. A well-designed return-to-work program ensures that the organization follows legal requirements, creating a secure and fair environment for both employees and employers.

2. 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.

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3. Maintains team cohesion

Team cohesion means integrating returning employees back into their teams and projects smoothly. This process involves fostering a sense of unity, collaboration, and mutual support among team members. Team cohesion ensures the returning employee feels welcomed and valued, reducing potential disruptions to the team’s dynamics and productivity. This step often requires effective communication, team building activities, and awareness among team members about the returning employee’s situation. By promoting team cohesion, organizations can maintain a friendly work environment. Additionally, cohesion ensures that colleagues work together efficiently, regardless of changes in team structure due to employee absences and returns.

4. 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.

5. Reduce 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.

6. Improve 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.

Getting started with a return-to-work program

Implementing a return-to-work program is a strategic move for companies looking to retain valuable talent and maintain an inclusive work environment. Such programs ensure a smooth transition for employees returning from extended leaves due to medical, parental, or personal reasons. Return-to-work programs reduce turnover costs and promote employee morale. By accommodating individual needs and legal requirements, organizations showcase their commitment to employee well-being and diversity. This commitment, in turn, enhances firms’ reputations, fosters a positive workplace culture, and contributes to long-term workforce stability.

To create a return-to-work program, companies should start with a needs assessment, identifying why employees take extended leaves and reviewing legal requirements. Next, leaders can develop a clear policy outlining program objectives, procedures, and responsibilities. It is important to ensure the guidelines align with your organization’s values and address identified needs. Then, businesses can put individualized return plans into place. Examples of these plans include gradual reintegration, flexible work options, and necessary support. Leaders can encourage ongoing communication to support employees and demonstrate commitment to an inclusive workplace culture.

The best practices for getting workers back to the office include the following.

1. Talk to the employee

It is crucial for firms to have open and empathetic conversations with employees when putting a return-to-work program into place. These conversations help understand employees’ needs, concerns, and preferences, ensuring that the company can provide any necessary support or adjustments. Regular check-ins before and after the return help employees feel valued and supported, creating a sense of belonging. Clear and transparent communication about program policies, expectations, and available resources is vital to reduce uncertainty and anxiety. This transparency will facilitate a smoother return to work for all parties involved.

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. In the case of an injury, recovering employees can avoid doing non-essential tasks until they fully heal. For example, a factory worker must be able to get the machine running. However, the manager can delegate lubrication to another employee temporarily.

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. Tailor support

Tailoring support refers to customizing the assistance firms provide to each returning employee based on their specific needs. This approach recognizes that no two employees are the same, and their reasons for taking extended leaves or their challenges upon returning can vary widely. By tailoring support, organizations ensure that returning employees receive the appropriate resources to facilitate a successful transition back to the workplace. For example, companies can offer flexible work schedules, job modifications, or additional training. This personalized approach promotes employee well-being and enhances the likelihood of their long-term retention and productivity.

4. Reintegrate gradually

During gradual reintegration, returning employees get back into their roles slowly rather than immediately resuming full-time responsibilities. This approach allows employees to get used to their work environment, tasks, and responsibilities at a comfortable pace. Reintegration can involve starting with reduced work hours or a limited workload and gradually increasing them over time. Gradual reintegration recognizes that returning employees may need time to readjust and regain confidence. This approach benefits employees, as it reduces stress and anxiety, and employers, as it minimizes disruptions and helps maintain productivity.

5. Encourage peer support

Peer support is a valuable component of a return-to-work program. Colleagues in the workplace provide mentorship, guidance, and emotional support to returning employees. Support involves pairing returning employees with experienced coworkers who can share their knowledge, offer insights, and help them face challenges. Peer support fosters a sense of camaraderie and belonging, making returning employees feel more comfortable and confident as they reintegrate into the workplace. This mentorship also promotes a positive workplace culture of inclusivity and collaboration, where employees actively support each other’s success.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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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