Employee Return-to-Work Support Guidelines

There are many reasons that an employee may need to take an extended leave from work, including work-related injury, serious illness, bereavement, maternity or paternity leave, and short-term or long-term disability. These situations can leave employees in new and vulnerable positions, so employers must offer return-to-work support. This support can take many different forms, depending on the workplace and the specific employee situation. Learning how to create a supportive environment is a great first step toward reducing the personal and professional impact of extended employee leave. 

Understand Employer Responsibilities

As an employer, understanding your responsibilities to your employees — both under applicable employment law and as a reasonable and responsible employer — is crucial. Particularly with regards to managing your employees day-to-day and for providing quality support during times of crisis. These responsibilities may include:

  • Scaling work appropriately;
  • Approving workers’ compensation and other aid if applicable;
  • Negotiating emergency expansions of paid leave;
  • Discussing a return-to-work timeline.

Depending on the situation, there may be other legal resources available to employers and employees — such as the relief programs instituted in the wake of COVID-19. 

Implement a Return-to-Work Policy

It’s a good idea as an employer to create a company-wide return-to-work policy. This policy might include procedures to get leave approved, the amount of extended leave available to employees, and other pertinent information such as pay and benefit coverage during the leave. This way, employees will know what they can expect if they need to take an extended leave. It can also make the transition back to work easier for everyone involved. Creating this policy can also allow you an opportunity to evaluate what kind of employee accommodations are sustainable for your business, and to receive feedback about what resources employees prioritize.

Be Flexible

Flexibility during the transitional back-to-work period is important for both the employee and the employer. Being open to negotiating work solutions, deadlines, or expectations in the initial return period can help relieve employee stress, which can ultimately aid the recovery process. 

It’s important to note that you don’t have to sacrifice your work performance expectations in the name of being flexible. Rather, it means working closely with the employee to find a strategy that both of you are happy with.

Communicate Openly and Often

Having a clear and direct line of communication is crucial for both employers and employees during extended leave periods. While employers should respect their employee’s space, the establishment of communication must happen to create a safe and effective return-to-work plan. 

Use this correspondence to ask about what work-related needs or accommodations your employee may have, and talk about how you can help sustainably provide for those needs. You may not be able to fulfill every request sustainably, so you may also want to encourage the use of HR or company counseling services as a way to resolve lingering interpersonal issues and provide additional support resources. 

Implement Return to Work Interview

A return-to-work interview can be a good opportunity for you and the employee to evaluate if they are fit to return to work. An employee returning to work too soon, before they are physically or mentally able, can, in many cases, worsen the situation. 

Many factors, both physical and emotional, can impede someone’s ability to perform satisfactory work. Some employees may try to return to work too early because of financial concerns. You may want to conduct this interview with HR, a counselor, or communicate with the employee’s physician so that you can get a full picture of whether an employee is ready to return to work. 

Provide Reasonable Accommodation

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) provides some guidelines about what is within the rights of employees with disabilities to request as a reasonable accommodation. This could be:

  • Moving or adjusting office layout for wheelchair accessibility;
  • Providing remote work opportunities;
  • Providing reserved parking;
  • Allowing for service animals or professional aids in the workplace.

When discussing these accommodations with the employee-in-need, you may find it helpful to include HR in those discussions. They can help you identify what is feasible for the company while still advocating for the employee’s needs. 

Promote Privacy

All employees, no matter where they work, have a reasonable right to privacy. Extended leave situations can be incredibly personal, and as their employer, you may be privy to sensitive details. Despite this, you should practice and promote the respect of others’ privacy in the workplace. Work should be a safe place for all employees, and private information should only be shared by the individual affected, when and if they choose to do so. One way you can promote these privacy practices is by establishing expectations for appropriate ways to share personal information in the company policy manual. 

Navigating extended leave and return-to-work situations can be complicated for an employer. Interpersonal and business priorities can sometimes clash in these situations. However, by understanding your responsibilities, communicating, creating clear expectations, and offering any reasonably available resources, you can make return-to-work situations easier for yourself and all other parties involved. 

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