How to create a return-to-work support plan for newly injured or ill staff

  • A return-to-work plan should be devised collaboratively between the employer and employee.
  • The best plans will be flexible depending on the condition and circumstances involved, continually evolve, be kept under review and aim to achieve a sustainable return.
  • Having holistic benefits, such as using the value-added services provided alongside group risk products, can help with long-term support and recovery.

When considering the subject of employee illness and absence, it is easy to focus on preventative measures, and supporting staff while they are either unwell or injured. However, a successful approach to employee health should also take into account how best to help individuals return to work once the initial challenge has passed.

While some organisations will have a standard return-to-work plan in place for injured or ill staff, others will adjust their approach on a case-by-case basis. There are some standard principles, such as access to medical professionals and rehabilitation guidance through an employer’s group risk provider, but the ultimate goal is to support individual employees as much as possible.

Creating a plan

When developing a return-to-work support plan, employers should consider approaching it collaboratively. This can start out as simply as carrying out an initial call with the employee to understand more about their role, ongoing symptoms, and concerns they might have about returning to work. Ensuring an employee has input into the plan from the first conversation can itself be an important step in helping build their confidence to return.

If a phased return is needed, the next step is to explore what they are able to manage as a starting point.

Donna Wray, senior rehabilitation consultant at Canada Life, says: “For example, some employees may benefit from having half or shorter days to begin with, whereas others may struggle to switch off part way through the day, and would benefit from working full days instead. It all depends on the employee’s own individual situation and circumstances.”

Plans will vary depending on the condition and circumstances in question, and the best approach will also evolve over time. Employers should ensure there are opportunities to review in order to achieve a sustainable return to work.

To create a robust plan, employers should also collaborate with HR, occupational health or health and safety teams and their group risk provider.

The plan might ultimately include modifications in the workplace, reduced hours or lighter duties recognising the individual’s needs.

Shelley-Ann Bridges, principal at Mercer Marsh Benefits, says: “An agreement should be reached including guidelines that outline timelines for review and also the support that can be provided to the employee during their recovery.”

Providing quick access to treatment to encourage early intervention can be paramount, because it is as much about getting staff back to work as it is about making sure resources are readily available.

This should take into account both physical injury and mental health, says Keira Wallis, head of clinical services at Healix Health Services.

“Having a mental health first aider within the organisation can provide security and comfort for staff, while creating a culture of trust and transparency which makes it easier for them to reach out for help and support,” she explains.

“Working with a flexible healthcare trust provider rather than a structured medical policy allows employers to do just that. A good proposition must focus on early intervention. For issues not usually covered within private medical insurance [PMI], having access to specialists and referrals for treatment can greatly ease the recovery journey of employees.”

When a return-to-work plan has been agreed, a date for when an employee re-enters the workplace will then be decided. If the employee needs any additional support, having a dedicated early intervention or rehabilitation team can help provide it on an ongoing basis following the return date.

Having the right benefits

What benefits are offered to newly injured or ill employees will depend on their individual needs, with line managers checking on their employees, building a support system around them and continuing to bring awareness to their specific needs to those that can implement measures to help.

“Using data and nurse-led services can help to understand what works best for each organisation and ensures that HR leaders and employees are supported by a clinician who understands the treatment pathways and can provide effective holistic aid,” Wallis explains.

In order to financially support injured or ill employees, employers may want to consider group income protection (GIP), a policy taken out by an employer in order to cover its contractual obligation to provide sick pay to employees if illness or injury prevents them from working for a prolonged period.

A group policy will also come with the added benefits of embedded services designed to support health, wellbeing and absence management, says Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for industry body Group Risk Development. This might include HR support, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), second medical opinion services, nurse-led support, fast-track access to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other talking therapies, occupational health, online GP services, health apps and more.

“Many of these will support newly ill or injured staff, provided they are adequately communicated and their use is encouraged,” Moxham adds.

A GIP policy will also offer other support, such as vocational rehabilitation, case management and treatment. Potential GIP claimants can access a case manager or rehabilitation consultant who can work with them, their medical practitioners and their employer in order to identify and overcome barriers to returning to work, and make appropriate early interventions.

While a rehabilitation team can help an employee make a complete return to work, other online services offer GP appointments, mental health support or second medical opinion services to help someone return earlier.

Meanwhile, PMI can ensure the employee has access to immediate diagnosis and expert consultants, without the need to endure backlogs within the NHS, says Wray.

“Most policies now include a virtual GP or triage service for musculoskeletal, mental health and various cancer symptoms, which will ensure the employee can seek advice on what the next step should include and refer them to the relevant clinician for a diagnosis and a treatment plan,” she explains.

“Speed is often of the essence with most symptoms, as conditions can quickly deteriorate and result in more complex and costly treatment being needed.”

Promoting a better return

Employers can promote other benefits that will help a smooth return-to-work for employees, including gym discounts to help continue rehabilitation and keep active, or providing cancer support services to those experiencing, living beyond or caring for others with the disease. This can be a way for employers to fill a gap in support systems and assist employees on each stage of their recovery journey.

They should also remind staff of the added-value services available through their group risk policies, all designed to support employees from a preventative perspective, but also to support them when they are ill or in distress, says Bridges.

“Benefits such as EAPs, annual health assessments and virtual GPs are beneficial to ensure employees have access to care in the early stages of their illness,” she says. “In addition, some give access to physiotherapy. Most also provide access to a wellbeing hub, which can include a calendar of events, webinars and articles with resources on lifestyle, diet and fitness.”

While some employers may want to tailor their return-to-work plan for each employee, others may find that a blanket approach works fine for their workforce. Communicating what is available and supporting staff every step of the way is key for ensuring a smooth return to the workplace.

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