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February 20, 2024

Best practices for RTW programs

One of the biggest components of workers’ compensation is an effective return-to-work (RTW) program. Eliminating injuries and illnesses is paramount for reducing workers’ compensation costs, but after an incident, an RTW program can significantly reduce workers’ compensation costs for employers and improve the lives of employees by getting them back to work when there is an injury or illness.

This article provides an overview of RTW programs and discusses the best practices for establishing and maintaining such programs.

What is an RTW program?

An RTW program is characterized by specific, documented organizational policies and procedures that provide guidance to supervisors and employees in managing the RTW process following a work-related absence due to injury, illness, or chronic disease. Its primary goal is to expedite the individual’s recovery and reintegrate them into productivity, achieved through various means such as referral, counseling, coordination of medical care, or adjustments to the workplace or job responsibilities. RTW programs may also include vocational rehabilitation services alongside transitional work options to facilitate a smooth return to full productivity.

While an RTW program may or may not be integrated with other benefits or absence management services, such integration is highly recommended. Reasons for implementing an RTW program include reducing lost time, accounting for ethical considerations, ensuring compliance with legal requirements, and safeguarding the organization’s workforce investment.

Why establish an RTW program?

RTW programs can be a significant source of relief for employees grappling with concerns, anxieties, and frustrations stemming from workplace injuries and illnesses. An employer’s proactive outreach and support during these challenging times can foster a positive connection between the injured worker and the organization.

There are numerous benefits linked to establishing RTW programs for employees, including:

  • These programs help injured workers return to their jobs quickly, preventing the significant likelihood they wouldn’t after a six-month absence.
  • They provide a structured mechanism for addressing workplace challenges, even during an injured worker’s return.
  • They demonstrate a commitment to supporting employee well-being and ensuring a smoother recovery process after workplace injuries, thereby increasing employee morale.

RTW best practices

Whether developing an RTW program for the first time or modifying an existing program, employers should follow these best practices to ensure their RTW program is effective:

  • Consider the basics. When developing an RTW program, employers should ensure it is consistent and aligned with organizational values. Employers should review state-specific laws, outline the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the program, and set clear expectations.
  • Put it in writing. Employers should have their RTW policies and procedures in writing.
  • Establish an RTW contact person. Establish a contact person that an injured employee can reach out to for any questions.
  • Inform employees. Train employees on the procedures for a workers’ compensation claim and the RTW program. Help them understand how the RTW program is a benefit to their recovery.
  • Create and implement a safety committee. Safety committees use members of management and employee populations to help identify and find solutions to hazards that are causing injuries and illnesses. Employees on this committee can help provide insight into the necessary movements and weight to be lifted to complete the job.
  • Develop functional job descriptions. Employers should create functional job descriptions that explain the physical demands required of specific job tasks. This also includes the movements necessary for each job task. This helps employers place employees who are returning to work from a work-related injury.
  • Modify job tasks. Employers should evaluate an employee’s condition when they are returning to work from an injury. The workplace should also be evaluated to adjust the environment for the employee while they are healing from the injury. If an employee is not able to RTW in their previous capacity, then the employer should determine the employee’s skill set to see where they can work within the company if positions are available.
  • Develop individual plans. Employers should create personalized RTW strategies that outline the necessary actions for an employee to resume their pre-injury position. In larger organizations, this plan should be formulated collaboratively by the RTW program coordinator, the injured employee, the employee’s supervisor, the health care provider, the union representative, and legal counsel, if applicable.
  • Maintain a job duty bank. Employers should have a list of jobs employees can be placed into when they have restrictions from a work-related injury. These jobs should be well thought-out and coordinated with doctor restrictions. This helps employers get employees back to work quicker and more efficiently.
  • Communicate. Early and frequent contact with injured workers is essential. Employers should continue to communicate with employees who have been injured during their time away from work and when they come back to work. Communication is essential for the passing of information and employee morale.
  • Integrate and coordinate with all stakeholders. Employers should avoid the silo mentality while maintaining a focus on the well-being of employees. Furthermore, RTW initiatives must have senior leadership backing to succeed.
  • Monitor, evaluate, and adjust the program. Employers should review their programs annually by looking at the measurements they should have in place. Employers should be setting up ways to gather the important data needed to review the RTW program. Once the information is obtained, employers should continue to make adjustments to the program where necessary.


Goals of an RTW program

An RTW program can help employees return to work faster from a work-related injury which increases their odds of a full recovery. It also helps employers save money on workers’ compensation costs.

For employees, participation in an RTW program can aid in recovery, allowing them to resume work as they recuperate and often fostering a sense of physical and emotional progress. Prolonged absences may lead to employee disengagement from the workplace, with physical ailments potentially transitioning into emotional distress, resulting in extended recovery periods.

Extended absences diminish the likelihood of employees returning to their original positions. While complex conditions may necessitate prolonged leave, experts acknowledge a culture of absence that can cause employees to remain out of work due to disengagement.

Some employees may find benefits in not working, while others may become detached from their former identities, eventually losing motivation to rejoin the workforce. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate act of fraud but rather a lack of desire to return, which can exacerbate their situations, contributing to emotional or physical challenges.

Employers, on the other hand, initiate RTW programs for various reasons, such as:

  • Managing benefit costs efficiently.
  • Creating a more employee-focused process.
  • Bolstering managers’ ability to achieve optimal productivity.

The foundational goals of an RTW program should be clearly articulated from the outset, with periodic reassessment. Some objectives may be met, prompting the need for more ambitious targets; others may require adjustment to align with evolving corporate needs or if they were initially set too high.

While all program goals hold significance, cost reduction is a prevalent objective. Savings can be realized through several mechanisms and incentives that establish and sustain an RTW program, even if the quantification of these benefits may initially pose challenges.

Organizations can achieve savings through:

  • Decreased costs related to employee absence (e.g., disability, workers’ compensation).
  • Reduced expenses associated with replacement workers (e.g., training, recruitment, team dynamics).
  • Lowered medical claim costs.
  • Diminished litigation expenses.
  • Early detection of fraudulent claims.
  • Heightened awareness of injury prevention and safety protocols.
  • Enhanced employee morale, potentially leading to decreased turnover.

Well-crafted processes and plans offer a mutually advantageous solution for both employees and employers.


RTW programs aren’t just about reinstating employees in their specific roles, although that’s the ideal scenario. Not only do these programs provide many advantages to employers, but they also encompass the involvement of employees in alternative positions as stepping stones toward full-time, full-duty work or as a means for them to remain engaged during their periods of disability.

To do this, employers should follow best practices to make sure they build the most efficient and effective RTW program possible. For more RTW guidance, contact Christensen Group Insurance today – your workers’ compensation partner.

This Work Comp Insights is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice. © 2024 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.

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