When an employee is on disability leave, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing when it comes to getting them safely back to work. In fact, given that only three per cent of workers who are off work for a year or more will return to work ever, it’s in everyone’s interest to get the return to work process figured out fast.
Write Everything Down — And Where Possible, Collaborate
No one wants a confrontational relationship with the employee — it pays off to work together. When both sides have bought into a written plan, the chances of it succeeding increase. If you set a date the employee is uncomfortable with, the employee may look for ways to extend their leave — to say nothing of the chances of them reinjuring themselves should they have genuinely not recovered enough.
Accept that an appropriate amount of full leave may be best in order for the employee to recover, but nonetheless ensure that you’ve set a firm goal date if at all possible. All this said, there’s always the chance that return to work dates get delayed — and we’ll talk about what to do there later.
Mutually Establish Appropriate Transitional Return to Work Goals
Perhaps an employee has had a significant back strain and needs some time outright off work as they’re unable to meaningfully perform any of their job duties.
After some time, however, they may be capable of their desk work but not able to do any heavy lifting. You may be able to arrange with the employee and their GP a graduated return to work after a certain date. Work out what that date is based on the expected recovery times and agree on what duties would be appropriate at that time.
Even if these duties are relatively minor, it’s well worth doing. Most importantly, your employee is back sooner and avoids the permanent disability trap. You also get access to their valued contribution — even if they’re not able to do physical work, they’re on-hand to advise those who are.
Explore Accommodations That Can Help Return them to Work
There are many things employers can do to help employees return before they’re fully recovered, or to account for new permanent disabilities that don’t affect crucial job functions.
If there’s a lot they could be doing with their hands if only they could get their wheelchair in, a simple ramp might be all you need. If they’d be able to accomplish some of their work remotely and it would promote their recovery to work from home at least part of the week, that could be something worth considering.
What to Do in a Dispute?
All of this is well and good when the employee is committed to returning, but what about when they’re not?
If you’re having issues with the employee in general, unrelated to the disability, you have to step lightly. You’re certainly well-advised to not use a disability as a means to discriminate against them, and you can’t use it, for example, as an excuse to terminate them.
There are many ways an uncooperative employee can delay or sabotage the return to work process. There’s a difference between that and an injury genuinely taking longer than expected to heal. And there’s a difference between both these and the possibility of medicalization having convinced the employee of a problem that might not exist. Employers should know that they do have a tool to help get answers when the return to work process results in a dispute.
Independent Medical Examinations Help Deliver Clarity
If you’re unsure of the true extent of an injury or are worried about the uncertainty that waiting to find out brings, you may want to look into an Independent Medical Examination (IME). These examinations allow you to get a fast, independent opinion on the potential existence and implications of an injury, and an IME can help plan an employee’s safe return to work on an appropriate timeline.
Western Medical Assessments’ Medical Director Dr. Roger Hodkinson is always available for a quick, no-obligation chat if you’d like to know more, at 780.433.1191.