Developing a return-to-workplace strategy

There is confusion about how a person with a disability can be reintegrated into the workplace after injury.

Assuming that the legal aspects are understood, the challenge is about implementation. Human resources practitioners look for a realistic strategy to ensure a successful return-to-work solution. The return-to-work process involves two major activities - accommodation and service coordination.

Accommodation includes steps taken to adapt the work environment so that it fits the physical, intellectual and psycho-social condition of the returning worker. It might include changing some of the job tasks or adding some specialized equipment.

Stabilising personal and work life

Service coordination is a form of case management that identifies and provides services that assist the employee in returning to work. Many of these services are aimed at stabilising both personal and work life. For example, referring an amputee to a support group, or providing information about financial counselling to someone with financial problems as a result of an injury or illness.

These two activities are not entirely separate functions. For example, coordination might involve finding and identifying services related to accommodation, such as a specialist in a certain type of assistive technology.

The Human Resources department should be able to determine the resources and services needed to support a return to the workplace, through communication with the returning worker, his or her supervisors, health care professionals and others who are involved. What will it take to enable this employee to safely and productively return to work? Are there any barriers that impede or prevent this worker from returning, and how can they be removed?


A return-to-work plan is a joint effort directed by the worker and assisted by the Human Resource department. Individuals critical to its success are involved at the planning stage and, therefore, are more likely to understand and support the worker’s efforts.

Planning meetings will involve the worker, the HR department, the employer’s representative(s), a union representative (in a union environment), a representative of the insurance provider, and other experts who may provide effective strategies to facilitate a safe and timely return to work.

If it’s necessary to discuss the worker’s medical details, informed consent must be obtained and confidentiality ensured so that personal information is protected.

The insurance company should be involved to ensure that an early return to work does not endanger a worker’s disability benefits. In most cases, insurers support the objectives of an early return to work. There have been many cases of insurers suspending benefits on the basis that the PWD is fit and qualified to work. In reality, the insurers should cover the cost of some accommodations and training.

Before implementation, the final step is to gain the agreement and support of all individuals essential to its success. Obviously, the most important consent is that of the worker. Without it, a successful return to work is unlikely. The worker should have a legal adviser to protect his or her interests.

The hierarchy of options

Assistive devices, or a modification of the work environment or job functions, can often help workers to successfully return to their original jobs. At times, however a return to the same job is not possible, and alternative strategies must be developed. A guideline to designing effective strategies in response to the changing needs of each worker is called the hierarchy of return-to-work options.

These options can be prioritised beginning with those that pose minimal barriers, require the fewest disability management interventions, and require the least adjustment by the worker. Return to Work, Same Job, Same Employer

Sometimes return to work is possible without any modification to the job or the work environment. The worker may require medical assistance or therapy, but a full return to work is possible. Same job; no restrictions; no accommodation necessary.

In some cases, the worker will require workstation modification, assistive devices to perform certain job tasks, or some type of task sharing. However, return to the pre-injury job is possible with some assistance from the employer. Same job; minor restrictions; some temporary accommodations necessary.

  • Gradual return to work or transitional work options.
  • The same job, permanent accommodations.

Return to Work, Different Job, Same Employer

If it appears unlikely that a worker can return to a former position, the next option is a different job with the same employer. Again, the worker retains existing relationships, benefits and seniority.

  • Different job, no additional training, job accommodations may be necessary.
  • Different job, additional training required, job accommodations may be necessary.

Another option that requires more extensive planning is to create a new job within the same workplace. This job may consist of tasks that should be done but are not, or it may involve jobs that were previously contracted out.

New job created by employer, additional training may be required, additional accommodations may be necessary.

Return to work, Different employer

If a return to work is not possible with the existing employer, then new employers or new jobs must be identified. This is not a preferred option in most cases because of the difficulties experienced by the worker in adjusting to a new workplace or relocating to a new city. Costs will be higher for relocation, retraining and any necessary job accommodations.

Similar job, same industry, minor retraining or accommodations may be required.

Different or modified job, same industry, training required, accommodations may be required.

Different or modified job, maybe in a different industry, additional training required, accommodation may be required.

Self employment

In some cases, a worker may prefer to market skill or expertise if a return to a former job or occupation is not possible. This option might include vocational assessment to determine any potential benefit from training for self-employment, or training and counselling to develop self-employment options suited to an individual’s restrictions, as well as to aptitudes and marketable skills. As the hierarchy demonstrates, return-to-work options are varied and flexible enough to accommodate most returning workers.

Columnist Photos