Failed Return to Work Cases: How Should You Handle Them?

[fa icon="calendar'] Jul 19, 2015 4:00:00 PM / by Deborah Lechner

Transitioning back into the workplace after a serious on-the-job injury or illness can be a difficult, frustrating, and often stressful process. From false starts, where an injured worker returns too early only to become overwhelmed and leave again, to situations where an injured worker is judged fit for duty but disagrees with the assessment, a number of scenarios can keep injured workers from returning to their posts. The question is, how should employers handle these failed return to work cases?

If an employee has suffered a serious work-related injury or illness and has been struggling with recovery, comprehensive work-based support and treatment can help move the process along more quickly even if that employee has already had a failed return to work attempt. The Institute for Work & Health, an independent, non-profit occupational health and safety research organization, has established research-based guidelines for employers in providing that support.

They suggest the following:

  • Ensuring a culture of safety in the workplace, providing training in injury prevention to employees and supervisors. This can help in easing a formerly injured worker's reluctance to resuming duties that might be rooted in nervousness, trauma, or fear of further injury.
  • Offering modified duties as a means of easing injured employees back into the workplace routine.
  • Organizing a return to work plan, formulated with input from the injured party and employers and/or supervisors as well as union reps, if applicable.
  • Foster communication with healthcare providers (with employee consent) to coordinate appropriate back to work planning and support.

Comprehensive support has been shown to ease and speed the transition back to work. According to the RAND Institute for Civil Justice, having a return to work program in place is associated with about a 3.6 week reduction in the median number of weeks away from work for an injured worker. For workers with a permanent disability, these programs reduce the median number of weeks out of work by 12.6 weeks. However, covering all of the bases in providing that support can be rather difficult for the average employer amid all the other responsibilities of the workday.


For that reason, many occupational health professionals offer post-injury services that include on-site treatment and clinic-based services. An important part of these services is evidence-based physical abilities evaluations that help take the guesswork out of back to work decisions, along with job-specific physical therapy, safety training, and worksite safety evaluations. In situations where the actual physical demands of the job are not clearly understood, a job demands analysis can provide the basis for sound return to work decisions. Placed in the hands of experts evaluation, rehabilitation, support, and treatment can deliver a faster, safer, and more successful return to the workplace.

Whether you choose to coordinate the support your injured employee needs yourself or bring in professional help, being involved and invested in the return to work process is vitally important. Providing support during the difficult recovery, rehabilitation, and return to work process really works to improve an employee's outlook and motivation level, increasing their odds of success - and that of your business, too.

When are Physical abilities test best performed

Topics: Workers' Compensation

Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.