How to use group risk benefits to rehabilitate employees back to work

After a period of absence, a well-structured rehabilitation programme will ensure employees are ready to return to work.

If you read nothing else, read this:

  • Rehabilitation benefits are off ered through group risk insurance providers to aid employees’ return to work.
  • Rehab can include cognitive behavioural therapy and physiotherapy.
  • Successful rehab relies on the collective efforts of employees, their employers and their insurer

Rehabilitation benefits enable employers to take an active role in an employee’s return to work after a period of absence. But is this always the right course of action?

Rehab benefits form part of a planned return-to-work programme once an employee begins to recover from an illness or injury. Employers are likely to have more success in helping staff back to work with a rehabilitation programme that entails, for example, a gradual reintroduction to the workplace, or a flexible-working or reduced-hours arrangement.

The key to a rehab programme’s success is employers not treating it as a medical issue. John Dean, director at Punter Southall Health and Protection, says: “Rehab needs to be looked at in a wider context, and not always in a medical way. It’s more around the employer realising that the employee, who has been absent from work for a period of time, needs to be integrated back in gently over a period.”

Vanessa Sallows, underwriting and benefits director, group protection at Legal and General, adds: “Our focus is always on [an employee’s] ability and what they are capable of doing, not the fact they’ve got a medical condition. It’s about getting employers to say it’s OK to have somebody back at work who’s undergoing this type of programme; it’s beneficial to everyone.”


Therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for stress, depression or anxiety, or physiotherapy for musculoskeletal complaints, are typical forms of rehab support.

But a successful outcome, whatever the treatment, relies on clear communication by all parties involved and, ultimately, employees understanding their rehab programme.

“That means that while an individual is undergoing CBT, it’s very clear from the beginning that our aim is to help them back to work,” says Sallows. “We will then work with the employer to help get the employee back into the workplace.”

Dealing with sensitive conditions, such as depression, stress and anxiety, involves a certain amount of trust and confi dence between employee and employer.

Not all employers have an occupational health department, so it can be difficult for them to create and manage a rehab programme, as well as any reasonable adjustments to the workplace.

Occupational health

Doctor Tyna Taskila, senior researcher at The Work Foundation, says: “It’s a bit problematic for employees in smaller or medium-sized [organisations] because often they do not have access to occupational health.

“If they do not have access to that type of support, there is no way an employer could even make those adjustments. It really depends on the employee then; whether they are willing to talk about their condition at work.”

But accommodating an employee’s return to work does not have to be complex, says Taskila. “A good line manager can make a big diff erence,” she says. “There is evidence that a good work environment helps people back to work, and remain in work. It’s not only what employers can do for employees, but also what [employees] can do themselves.”

Employees that are knowledgeable about their condition and are prepared to discuss it should do their best to inform their employer about what support they need, Taskila adds. For an employee, rehabilitation provided by a third-party insurer may seem like a lifeline just when they need it most, but staff should ensure that the insurer and their employer create a programme tailored to their needs within a realistic timeframe.

Appropriate timing

Nick Boynton, a director at JLT Benefits Solutions, says: “The key point is making sure people come back to work when they are ready. A lot of employees will rush back to work, particularly in the current environment when they are worried about redundancies, and might come back before they’re ready. That’s where an insurer can help an employer make any necessary adjustments.”

Employers should not underestimate the input of their healthcare providers in helping to manage the rehabilitation process.

Declan White, group protection marketing manager at Friends Life, says: “The income protection insurer plays an important role in co-ordinating all stakeholders. The insurer will bring a number of other stakeholders, such as the employee’s doctor, occupational health and private medical insurer, together to create a return-to-work plan for the member of staff .”

Insurers can also help to break down barriers that may have arisen between an employer and an employee after an absence. JLT’s Boynton says employers can optimise a rehab strategy’s success by integrating it into their overall wellbeing strategy.

Case study: PricewaterhouseCoopers

Case study: PricewaterhouseCoopers

Professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) uses a multi-pronged approach to ensuring staff receive appropriate support when suffering from an illness or injury.

As well as offering a range of healthcare benefits, including private medical insurance (PMI) and group income protection (GIP), PWC’s health and wellbeing team works with people managers if an employee is on long-term sick leave to offer support tailored to their needs.

Rosie Garfield, health and wellbeing leader, says: “Every individual who is off for a length of time will be supported by their people manager, and their people manager will have this specialised support, which comes from my team.”

Garfield’s team will liaise with an employee’s people manager and provide information about where they can go for further advice and refer the situation to PWC’s occupational health team, if necessary.

“When recommendations come back from occupational health, we will work out how we can get the person back into work,” says Garfield. “Do we need to make any adjustments to technology or to logistical things around the building? Do we need to look at changing the individual’s duties for a length of time while they get back into work? Do we need to look at adjusting their hours?”

PWC works closely with its health insurance providers, particularly its GIP provider, through which it has access to rehabilitation processes, which can include assessment of an individual’s eligibility for cognitive behavioural therapy.

“While it’s about getting people back into work, there’s a very big piece about how we communicate with them while they’re off and supporting them,” says Garfield.

“Once we get outside the benefits themselves, it’s about tailoring to the individual situation to make sure people still feel very much included in the workforce.”

View point: work together for a healthy working environment

Viewpoint: work together for a healthy working environment

The relationship between work and health is complex. However, it is widely recognised that good work is good for health, contrasting with the higher rates of physical and mental ill-health among the unemployed and those exposed to poorly-managed hazardous work.

So it is in everyone’s interests to promote a timely return to work and appropriate rehabilitation for staff who have been absent because of injury or ill-health.

Unions can play a pivotal role. Some of our representatives facilitate contact with absent staff by explaining to them an employer’s right to keep in touch and exploring the options for that point of contact, a particular challenge if the line manager is an alleged source of tension.

Good employers already offer alternative conduits for communication as a means of avoiding this potential conflict.

Union representatives routinely act as trusted listeners, signposting people to resources and avenues for support. With experience of reasonable adjustments or workplace adaptations, they bring practical mediation that can be beneficial.

A sticky subject for some is the role of occupational health (OH), with staff occasionally suspicious that it is a front for exiting staff through capability procedures.

The perception is reinforced when OH staff are deployed within HR departments because of questions around independence and clinical governance.

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We need to work together if we are to secure the job security and productivity associated with good work, good health and good lives.

Sarah Page is a researcher at Prospect