Apply These 5 Techniques to Help Employees Return to Work After a Medical Absence


How to Help Employees Return to Work After a Medical Absence

When a worker gets hurt or sick and misses a substantial amount of time, it can be hard for you as a business owner to know what to do. The situation can become even more challenging when it’s time for the employee to return to work after a medical absence.

If you don’t have a plan for dealing with people’s return as well as their absence, this could become a major distraction.

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Balancing Responsibilities as a Business Owner

Any sort of employee sickness or injury — regardless of whether it was sustained on the job — is sensitive. Obviously, rules, laws and company-specific protocol have to be respected as well as the personal side of the matter.



On the one hand, you have a duty as a human being to be compassionate and caring for your employee in the person’s time of need. On the other, you have to keep the operation running efficiently and ensure people get back on the job as soon as possible.

It’s a fine line to walk, and you can appear insensitive or careless if you wander too far to either side. A correct answer or step-by-step process you could follow every time an employee went through a sickness or injury would be great, but every situation is wholly unique.

What works in one instance might be inappropriate or ineffective in another. The goal, however, should always be to encourage the employee to return to the job as swiftly as possible after recovery.

From there, the objective is to ensure the worker’s reunion with the company and his or her job is smooth and successful.

How to Ensure Employees Enjoy a Seamless Return to Work

Getting workers back to work after an injury or illness is hard enough. Getting them to return to work without any other issues can be even more challenging. It can be done, though, and the following tips should help you understand how.

1. Implement a Return to Work Program

Studies show that employees who remain out of work for more than 12 weeks as the result of a job-related injury have a less than 50 percent chance of ever returning.  It’s also been shown that, in most instances, getting employees back to work sooner reduces the overall claim cost associated with the incident, since the most significant portion of workers compensation costs is payment for lost wages (indemnity).

Though there are obviously things you can’t control, such as serious injuries that require many months of recovery, it’s a smart strategy to design a formal return-to-work program that dictates a systematic approach to the process of reintegrating employees.

A return-to-work program also raises employee morale and helps workers return to their duties with minimal friction. According to AVMA PLIT, a provider of professional liability insurance, there are seven key benefits to developing a return-to-work program. Such a program will:

  • Reduce the probability of fraudulent claims,
  • Allow a business to receive production in return for wages being paid,
  • Save costs of training and replacing employees,
  • Speed up the healing process for the individual,
  • Promote good morale throughout the organization,
  • Help the employee stay mentally and physically acclimated to the work schedule,
  • Reduce negative financial impact of the injury or illness.

Some businesses are automatically turned off by the notion of launching another costly program, but the fact is that return-to-work programs don’t actually cost much. According to one source, more than half of employers report no cost, while 38 percent experience only a one-time cost which is usually $500 or less.

2. Acknowledge Financial Issues

Speaking of money, it’s worthwhile for employers to recognize the total cost of a medical absence and encourage open discussions with the employee. Not only does the company have to deal with the financial ramifications of the incident, but so does the employee.

This is especially true if the medical absence is unrelated to work. If the employee is okay with it, sit down and discuss the financial pressures he or she is facing. A single hospital stay can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and bills that are past due by even just 30 or 60 days will sometimes be sent to collections.

Supporting and educating employees as they deal with medical debt can go a long way toward improving employee morale and empowering everyone to focus on work.

3. Make Communication Paramount

On a related note, communication is vital in all phases of reunification. The employer should be in constant dialogue with the worker from the moment a medical absence starts until well after the employee has returned to normal work duties.

Encourage regular meetings with HR or company counselors to ensure the employee feels like his or her needs are being addressed in an appropriate manner.

4. Make Reasonable Adjustments

Throwing someone back into the work grind after an extended absence isn’t necessarily wise or healthy. You’ll want to facilitate a smooth transition and make reasonable adjustments to ensure the employee feels cared for physically, mentally and emotionally.

According to Fit for Work, workplace adjustments can be permanent or temporary, and may include:

  • Additional training or retraining (depending on the circumstances),
  • Modification of working hours and work patterns, such as part-time remote working,
  • A phased return to work,
  • Excused absences for doctor’s visits and rehabilitation or treatment,
  • Modifications to work equipment.

The primary objective is to make sure the employee is able to do the job safely and effectively. In most cases, these modifications can be made with minimal financial investment.

5. Take Privacy Into Account

HIPAA laws always come into play any time an employee is injured or becomes ill. Though this usually isn’t an issue, it occasionally poses a problem when it involves an employee returning to work when he or she is still dealing with the lingering effects of a medical incident.

For example, say an employee returns to work in a warehouse where he operates heavy machinery. You know the worker is recovering from a very painful injury and that he may possibly still be on opiates, or other powerful pain medication.

It would likely be unsafe for him to do his job while under the influence of these drugs, but you can’t specifically discuss what medication he is on, unless he volunteers the information. In instances like these, it’s a good idea to hire some sort of intermediary who can coordinate between insurer, healthcare providers, employee and your company.

Many companies do this now, and it creates an added layer of protection for everyone involved.

Are You Doing Your Part?

There’s nothing easy about dealing with employee illness or injury. It’s unfortunate and can be uncomfortable for all parties involved.

As the employer, you have a duty to support the individual, while ensuring a speedy return that poses the least amount of hardship on the business. Are you fulfilling your dual obligations?

Injured Businesswoman Photo via Shutterstock

1 Comment ▼

Larry Alton


Larry Alton Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

One Reaction

  1. Aira Bongco

    The Return to Work program is a good idea. It is a nice way to get employees reoriented with the work.

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