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Employer Assistance & Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN): A service of The Viscardi Center.
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Return to Work Programs

Return to Work (RTW) Programs help supervisors manage employee injury, illness and disability and ensure that employees are able to return to the workplace as quickly and safely as possible. RTW programs that allow employees to resume working in an appropriate and timely manner, with or without work restrictions, are essential for minimizing health-related absences and optimizing productivity.

Returning employees to work goes well beyond treating the physical nature of the injury, health condition or disability, it also includes psychological impact, family and workplace dynamics. By creating an effective and holistic RTW program based on communication and trust, employers can take positive steps to keep their employees productive, safe and valued in the workplace.

What are the advantages of RTW Strategies?

Successful RTW programs have benefits for both employees and employers, including an estimated $8-$10 savings for every $1 invested in such programs. Return-to-work strategies and programs have traditionally been utilized to reduce workers' compensation costs; however, these programs are more valuable now than ever for companies to save time, money and retain essential human capital.

Specific financial and other benefits of RTW programs include:

  • Speeding employee recovery after injury or illness
  • Reducing:
    • Employee absence
    • The costs related to training new employees
    • Medical and disability costs
    • The potential for litigation
  • Increasing:
    • Employee engagement, self esteem and morale
    • Retention of valuable employees
    • Productivity by decreasing lost work time

RTW programs are most effective when combined with:

  • Injury prevention and management strategies
  • Stay-at-work strategies such as health, wellness and prevention initiatives
  • Strong support from management at all levels

What are Successful RTW Strategies?

Employers can implement a wide variety of policies, processes and programming to support employees' return to the workplace. Successful strategies include:

  • Developing a written policy or procedure to help facilitate the return of injured workers
  • Establishing a strong management commitment supporting employees' return to work
  • Partnering with employees going on leave so that they may provide input into how they can remain productive
  • Designating a return-to-work lead or representative
  • Encouraging open and honest communication among supervisors and staff
  • Implementing job modifications, adjustments or alterations to support returning workers with newly acquired job limitations
  • Providing the opportunity for transitional or light duty until employees can fully resume their former job duties
  • Identifying areas of possible re-assignment throughout the organization that accommodate employees' capabilities
  • Providing health and risk reduction supports during employees' transition back to work
  • Adopting a disability management approach for employees with conditions that require regular maintenance such as diabetes or hypertension
  • Implementing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to assist with emotional and behavioral health issues such as depression or stress

How Do I Know Which RTW Strategies Will Work for My Organization?

Collaboration among internal and external stakeholders is critical to the success of RTW programs.

Developing a customized approach to RTW MUST include consultation with:

  • Employees
  • Managers
  • Human resource professionals

And CAN include consultation with:

  • Health care professionals
  • Disability management consultants or other third party providers

Other Resources

Return to Work Toolkit<>
This Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy resource provides information, tools, strategies and resources to assist employees and employers with the return-to-work process.

Disability Management Employer Coalition<>
The Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) provides employers with information, strategies and resources to improve workplace productivity through better absence and disability management.

The Return to Work Knowledge Base<>
The Return to Work Knowledge base provides research-based information and resources to employers, employees, health professionals and insurers on returning to work after illness or injury.

Independent Living Centers<>
Centers for Independent Living (CIL/ILC) are consumer-controlled, community-based, cross-disability, nonresidential private nonprofit agencies that are designed and operated within a local community by individuals with disabilities. Employers who contact ILCS can get advice on Return-To-Work programs.

Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work: Supporting Employees Who Experience Unexpected Illness or Disability <>
This fact sheet summarizes resources available to help employees who have sustained disabilities or chronic illness to return to work or stay at work. It also explains provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that are applicable in these situations, and how intermittent leave may assist employees to remain on the job.

Page last updated on Tuesday, September 10, 2013