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Dealing with employees who do not return to work

Nothing is more complex than dealing with human behavior. Even employers with stellar Return-to-Work and injury management programs can encounter employees who can’t or won’t return to work. The core of the matter is not about strategy, systems or even culture. According to John Kotter of the Harvard Business School, “The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.”

Here are some steps that can help reduce the length of disability:

1. Reach out and communicate with injured employees early in their disability
Don’t assume employees do not want to return to work. For most employees, being injured at work is a first time occurrence and it can be a confusing and frightening experience. Workers whose employers reach out and communicate with them early in their disability return to work an estimated 2.7 weeks sooner, helping to save a company approximately $810 per short term-disability, according to the Washington Business Group on Health.

2. Realize that you are setting standards
Employees expect you to care about fellow workers with legitimate injuries. Likewise, they expect you to prevent abuses that can have a demoralizing effect on production. Treat employees consistently and follow your policies and procedures.

3. Don’t use a Workers’ Compensation claim to deal with a problem employee
Workers’ Compensation is often seen by managers as an opportunity to get rid of marginal or troublesome employees. This is like walking in quicksand – there is a host of laws that employees can choose from to sue you, including wrongful termination, disability discrimination and retaliation.

Performance problems should be documented and disciplinary action taken separate from the Workers’ Compensation claim.

4. Be the facilitator – keep communication open between the treating physician and the employee
The employer, not the claims adjuster nor the treating physician, should be the key facilitator following an injury. It is not the job of the treating physician to make employment decisions. The employer needs to communicate the desire to provide appropriate work for the injured worker and the doctor is responsible for providing information regarding the abilities of the injured worker so that informed return to work determinations can be made. Employees should also be involved in the discussions about return to work solutions.

5. Continually give injured employees reasons to return to work
After the initial outreach, it’s easy to focus on production and reduce contact with injured employees. Yet, studies show that frequent expressions of regard and regular communication help reduce the probability of lengthy lost time. Give employees a reason to want to come back to work.

6. Closely monitor recovery progress, obtain timely Work Status Reports, and make offer for modified duty position
You have the right to monitor an injured employee’s condition and progress and find out when an employee should be returning to work and with what restrictions, if any. After the initial examination, the treating physician must send the employer and the insurance carrier a completed “Work Status Report” and changes in the condition of the injured worker are reported on the report until the injured worker is fully released to return to work.

The reports should be reviewed in a timely fashion and a determination made if there is suitable work that accommodates the employee’s restrictions and a bona fide job offer made.

7. Take action if employee refuses modified duty offer
If the injured worker does not believe the available work is within his or her restrictions, the person can ask the treating doctor for clarification. However, if the job offer is consistent with the physician’s instructions and the employee refuses, in most cases you can cut off the indemnity benefits.

The work offered should be meaningful and not demeaning to the worker. While it may be legal to reduce the employee’s pay, the best results come from employers who do not reduce pay. Reducing pay can have a negative effect on the employee’s attitude and if reduced too much could require some indemnity to be paid. Modified duty assignments are intended to be short-term and every effort should be made to make the employee feel good about the process.