An employee’s time away from work due to a disabling illness or injury can have significant implications for an employer. From a practical standpoint, prolonged absences lead to a number of concerns over things like productivity, staffing, or morale. But the larger issue is the direct and indirect financial cost of disability leaves. That’s why many insurers embed return-to-work programs into their group disability plans.


The cost of disability leave

Direct costs: increased fees and/or premiums paid to the disability insurer, as well as sick pay and other expenses associated with employer-funded leave programs.

Indirect costs: costs incurred by employers when adjusting for an employee who is out on disability leave. These can include:

  • Overtime pay for staff members picking up additional hours
  • Temporary employees who fill the work gaps when regular employees are out
  • Productivity loss due to delayed or canceled projects
  • Hiring and training replacement employees

There is also a legal risk for not accommodating an employee’s return to work. The Department of Labor strongly enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) requirements for reasonably accommodating employees returning to work after a disability. “Reasonable accommodations” may include providing:

  • Sit/stand workstations
  • Periodic breaks
  • Visual/auditory enhanced equipment
  • Lifting assistance
  • Scooters to assist with mobility issues
  • Temporary parking closer to the building

Because all these factors can impact a company’s bottom line, it’s in everyone’s interest to invest in a return-to-work program.

Managing return-to-work opportunities

Return-to-work programs offered by group disability insurance carriers can usually start as soon as a claim is filed. As part of its claim review process, the insurance carrier gathers pertinent information about the employee. To help with this information gathering process, the employer needs to provide a description of the position and details of the employee’s general work environment.

The insurance carrier will then assign a case manager who begins to outline a plan. If the data indicates that an accommodation will be necessary, they may engage the services of a vocational specialist. Employers may be contacted about what type of accommodations can facilitate a return to work.

With input from the employee, their treating physician and the employer, the case manager will develop a comprehensive return-to-work plan and monitor the claim to ensure a successful outcome.

Identifying return-to-work candidates

Many variables determine who makes a good return-to-work candidate and when the process should be started. Each claim must be reviewed on its individual merits.

The most successful returns occur when employees can return to a productive role as rapidly as their health condition permits, and when they are motivated to return. The importance and value of earning an income is a self-motivating factor for most people.

Return-to-work plans do not have to be an “all or nothing” situation. A plan could include a graduated work schedule, building from part-time to full-time over a specified period.

The price of returning to work

In many instances, the costs associated with an employee’s return to work are nominal, and the carrier may even assist with funding a qualified worksite or job modification such as:

  • Temporarily adjusting work schedules to allow for doctor’s visits
  • Providing larger monitors for ease of sight
  • Relocating an employee’s workstation
  • Making ergonomic adjustments to a workstation

Partnering for success

Successful return-to-work programs are a true partnership between the employee, their employer and the group insurance carrier. Disability claims can be a difficult and complicated experience for affected parties, but many of those with disabling conditions can and do return to the workforce when given the opportunity.

For more information on return-to work programs, read our Inside Track educational paper (PDF).