Supporting an Early and Safe Return to Work
If an employee takes a leave of absence due to an on-the-job injury, it is the employer’s responsibility to facilitate a safe return to work for that employee when they are sufficiently recovered.
Workplace injuries can vary greatly in their severity, so injury leave and returns to work must necessarily be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In Canada, an employee is entitled to job-protected leave to recover from a workplace injury. While there is no specific time limit on the leave, the employee or their doctor must be able to provide regular reports on the status of their injury and recovery.
The goal of an early and safe return to work is to bring the employee back into the workplace as soon as it is safe to do so, even if this means temporarily changing their hours or job duties.
Who is Involved in a Return-to-Work?
If an employee is injured, several key stakeholders will be involved. In Ontario, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) oversees all workplace injury claims and ensures that employees who are forced to take leave due to injury in the workplace are able to do so. Other provinces and states generally have organizations or government branches that handle the same duties – for example, Worksafe in British Columbia.
If the WSIB or equivalent body finds that the injury was indeed caused directly by the employee’s work, they will pay a percentage of the employee’s wages while the employee is on leave.
The injured employee’s doctor or healthcare provider should also be included in the process. Regular check-ins with an employee’s healthcare provider serve to keep the employer informed of the nature of the employee’s injury, recovery timelines, and current physical capabilities.
Developing and Implementing a Return-To-Work Policy
Don’t wait until an employee is injured to consider your return-to-work policy. It is the responsibility of every employer to have a written return-to-work policy in case an employee is forced to take leave. The return-to-work policy should be regularly reviewed, and should include information about who will facilitate an employee’s return to work, and what types of suitable work your organization can make available.
Who helps facilitate the return to work can vary. In a large organization, the duty might be assigned to someone in HR. In smaller organizations, the return-to-work might be facilitated by the person who directly supervises the returning employee.
While the WSIB will not directly oversee the process, they should be consulted and kept updated over the course of the employee’s return to work. They can assist with policy questions as well as with determining what suitable work will look like given the employee’s health and legal situation.
What is “Suitable Work”?
Bringing an employee back to work early necessarily requires that the work be appropriate for the employee’s abilities. Depending on the nature of their illness or injury, the abilities they have on their return to work may not be the same abilities that they had prior to their leave.
“Suitable” work will differ between employees, but the key tenets of suitable work are as follows:
- The work is safe
- It is available within the current organizational structure
- It is productive for the company
- It is within the employee’s functional abilities
- It restores the employee’s earnings to what they were prior to the accident
Organizations are required to provide suitable work to returning employees up to the point of undue hardship. Undue hardship looks different for every organization, but when considering hardship in a business environment, the conversation tends to come down to financial concerns.
Larger organizations with more control and ownership over their work environment can order specific furniture or install disability aids if required. For a smaller company, the point of undue hardship might be somewhat more pertinent. For example, if returning an employee to suitable work would require a small organization to install an elevator, then bringing that employee back might represent an undue hardship for that organization. It is worth noting, however, that it is quite rare for an organization to not be able to find suitable work for a returning employee, and there needs to be strong, documented justification if your organization is claiming this.
Communication with the Employee
It’s important not to discount the human element when an employee is returning to work after an injury.
Taking leave for injury or illness is a stressful experience – it can place both financial and emotional strain on the employee. Knowing that their job is protected can help greatly in alleviating that stress, allowing them to focus more on their recovery.
When bringing an employee back to work after an injury, clear communication is key. Your organization should consult the WSIB and the employee’s physician to get an objective view of the employee’s capabilities. But it is equally important to talk to the employee themself.
Weekly check-ins, both while the employee is recovering, and during their first few months back at work, are integral to ensuring that the employee has a chance to voice any concerns, and that you have an accurate picture of whether the suitable work is actually conducive to the employee’s rehabilitation.
If an employee raises a concern, be prepared to make changes to the structure of work to accommodate.
Each conversation you have with the employee, with the employee’s doctor, and with the WSIB on the topic should be documented and recorded. This information not only protects you and the employee in the case of a legal disagreement, but it also provides learnings that can improve the return to work policy for future reference.
Do you know what’s included in your organization’s return to work policy? Are you concerned about returning an injured employee to suitable work? Fluent Motion works with organizations across a variety of industries to provide training and support for return to work processes. Contact us today to learn more.