Once Upon a Time...
There was a time when many organizations and managers believed that if an employee was not 100% healthy and fit, they should not be in the workplace.
These managers and their organizations required an ill or injured employee to remain off work until they fully recovered. Some employers offered short term and long term disability benefits plans to provide a level of income replacement to the ill or injured worker while they were absent. This sort of thinking contributed to a mindset amongst employees that if they became ill or injured the best thing to do was to stay away from the workplace until they fully recovered.
Along came an awareness of Human Rights legislation and requirements to ensure that employment systems did not discriminate against individuals based upon a number of prohibited characteristics, including disability. The legislative framework required employers to take measures to reasonably accommodate those with disabling conditions.
Those organizations and their managers who believed that ill or injured employees should not be in the workplace, and their employees who believed they should stay away from the workplace until they were fully recovered, were both in for a surprise!
The legislative framework changed. Employers could no longer ignore their duty to accommodate the genuine limitations and restrictions of employees in the workplace. Employees would no longer remain away from the workplace simply because of an illness or injury.
We also started to learn that perhaps an ill or injured employee could actually recover safely and more quickly if they returned to the workplace performing altered or adjusted duties, sometimes referred to as "light duties." Organizations realized that absenteeism is very expensive and that the costs of maintaining short term and long term disability programs can be significant.
A Different Mindset
Leading employers provide not only short term and long term disability benefits, but they also coordinate effective return to work programs. The purpose of these programs is to return an ill or injured employee to the workplace to meaningful duties as soon as possible while respecting the bona fide limitations and restrictions of the employee.
This approach requires a shift in focus. Both employers and employees now focus on identifying the limitations and restrictions of the employee and not upon the particular diagnosis of illness or injury. Once identified, the employer is challenged to find duties that align with the employee's restrictions and limitations. This approach also requires that employees may need to be assigned different duties or that they may need to gradually return to their workplace duties. In short, the focus shifts from "disability" to "ability."
To ensure equitable and consistent management of this complex area, a return to work policy should be developed including the following elements:
- Employer Commitment - to return ill or injured employees to meaningful duties in the workplace at the earliest safe opportunity, based upon the individual's capabilities while accommodating their personal limitations and restrictions.
- Manager and Supervisor Responsibilities - to fully cooperate with and support efforts to accommodate employees with bona fide limitations and restrictions.
- To ensure employees are assigned work and only perform duties, that is in accordance with their identified limitations and restrictions.
- Employee responsibilities - to fully participate and cooperate with Return to Work initiatives such as obtaining and providing documentation from their treating physician identifying their bona fide limitations and restrictions.
- Work within the limitations and restrictions identified.
We all seek to avoid Illness and injuries, but they do occur. Employers and employees can effectively cope with those that occur through effective return to work programs.