If employees have been on leave for weeks or months, use this return-to-work process to facilitate a smooth, efficient and compliant return.

The return to work can be a significant transition for your employees who have been out of the office for weeks to months. You’ll have to help them reacclimate to the workplace as smoothly and quickly as possible.

Reasons for extended leaves of absence or time out of the physical office include:

  • An employee’s health or medical issue
  • Injury
  • Disability
  • Health or medical issue involving an employee’s close family member
  • Lengthy personal leave or sabbatical
  • Some sort of disaster, including natural disasters, that may damage an office and prevent work from taking place there during the repair and rebuilding process
  • Any other scenario requiring employees to work remotely – or that shuts down businesses – for extended periods (for example, the COVID-19 pandemic)

By far, a personal health or medical issue, injury or disability are the most common reasons for employees to be absent for prolonged periods.

Overview of the return-to-work process

The return-to-work process aims to facilitate the return of an employee – often someone who’s recovering from an illness or injury, or who has become disabled – to their job as soon as possible. In doing so, a delicate balance must be struck between meeting the employer’s and the employee’s needs. The goal is a win-win for both parties.

Usually, this is less than a formal, independent policy. It’s often more of a process that is embedded into existing leave policies, which explain the following to employees:

  • The types of leave they are eligible for
  • The requirements and processes associated with each type of leave
  • How employers comply with federal and state law

However, the return-to-work process certainly could be its own policy.

Regardless, these procedures should be documented in writing and incorporated into your employee handbook.

Essential elements of the return-to-work process:

  • Communicate the process and all expectations in writing to the employee at a designated time before they’re expected to return.
  • Establish the specific date for when the employee will be back in the office.
  • Identify essential functions of the job.
  • Determine the employee’s current capabilities and restrictions.
  • Evaluate and finalize personal accommodations.
  • Ensure compliance with all relevant HR documentation and legal requirements.
  • Notify the employee of:
    • New training requirements
    • New job responsibilities
    • Updated company policies or procedures

Benefits of a return-to-work process

Getting an employee back to work and re-integrated within their team efficiently has important benefits for both employer and employee.

For employers, the process should help:

  • Demonstrate a culture of caring to team members.
  • Keep employees engaged.
  • Maintain morale and productivity.
  • Improve employee retention, which saves costs associated with hiring and training new employees.
  • Reduce costs associated with workers’ compensation, disability and medical insurance (if an employee can return to work faster).

For employees, the process should help:

  • Give them a purpose.
  • Improve their sense of self-worth – they feel needed and wanted.
  • Preserve their professional skills and ability to earn an income, even if they return to work on a reduced capacity.
  • Help them to feel more connected to the company.

Define your company’s return-to-work process

It’s helpful to be prepared long before an employee is out of the office for an extended period.

Enabling remote work is important because it may be necessary to offer it as a personal accommodation to an employee. Offering this option may very well speed up the ability of an employee to return to work.

In the event of long-term, office-wide disruption, such as a disaster or a pandemic, it’s absolutely critical (if possible) for employees to be able to work remotely to continue business operations.

Having job descriptions in writing is important so that you can review essential job functions with employees returning to work and determine whether they’re able to perform them. The job description serves as a formal, objective summary of what the job requires. It’s a good idea to have the employee acknowledge and sign their job description each time it’s updated.

Return to work following a health or medical issue, injury or disability

These are the most common leaves. Their impact on a business tends to be minimal, because it’s about accommodating individuals.

In these cases, the primary treating physician decides when an employee can return to work. You’ll need to obtain a written release from the physician for the employee to return to work on a specific date.

Feel free to check in occasionally with the employee on leave to inquire about their status, especially as the employee approaches their estimated return-to-work date. Engage the employee in a two-way dialogue about their ability to perform the job and what accommodations they may need. Solicit their buy-in on their new working situation.

As you bring an employee back to work, be careful to comply with all relevant federal and state legal requirements:

1. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled employees who can perform essential functions of their job – with or without a personal accommodation.

Employers are also required to engage an employee in conversation to identify reasonable accommodations that can be made to perform essential job functions. An accommodation is reasonable if it doesn’t cause an employer undue hardship, such as:

  • Accessible work facilities
  • Modified work schedule
  • Option to work remotely
  • Reassignment to an open position
  • Job sharing

If an employee can’t perform the essential functions of their position, both parties may need to be creative and work together to identify a solution.

2. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

This law entitles eligible employees for up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave, usually due to their own medical or health issue, or a similar issue with a close family member.

Depending on the situation, an employee may return to work sooner. In other cases, it may be necessary to extend the planned duration of their leave. Because every situation is unique, you’ll need to engage the employee to assess their needs and determine how you can accommodate them. For example, it may be possible to avoid an extended leave if the employee can work remotely or in a reduced capacity.

Comply with all privacy considerations surrounding the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which mandates that employers must keep employees’ personal medical information confidential and secure.

3. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

If an employee is injured on the job and must take time away from work to recover, you’re obligated to correct the issue that led to the safety incident. It’s the duty of each employer to provide a safe working environment free from hazards.

The first step toward a safe workplace is creating a written safety program. Whether you’re a large, mature company or a fledgling small business, it’s critical (and the law) to communicate safety- and health-related guidelines and procedures to employees.

4. Workers’ compensation statutes

These laws vary by state. Confirm your obligations according to the laws where your business operates.

If you’d like a primer on what workers’ compensation is and how to root out hazards that could lead to costly claims, here’s our guide.

Also, it’s important to consider how workers’ compensation applies to remote employees.

Return to work following disasters and pandemics

The return-to-work process for disasters and pandemics looks a bit different. This is because these situations tend to be more complex and can impact all your employees – if not entire cities, states and regions – simultaneously.  

Businesses may be closed or unable to continue normal operations. Offices may sustain damage or otherwise be unable to host work activities on-site for a time.

Disasters

Put together return-to-work guidelines and communicate them to employees:

  • Disseminate written notice that the office is open and it’s safe to return to the workplace.
  • Communicate the date by which everyone should return to work on-site (unless they can continue to work from home).
  • Ask employees to speak to their manager if they aren’t able to return by the requested date or need a personal accommodation.

Additionally, depending on the nature of the disaster and the extent to which employees were affected personally, consider having a conversation with employees about the situation to facilitate group healing. Offer all available resources to help them cope, such as an employee assistance program (EAP).

Pandemics

Return-to-work guidelines should:

  • Align with federal, state and local return-to-work orders.
  • Notify employees by when they’re expected to return to work on-site (unless they can continue to work remotely), and if this will happen in phases with the most essential workers prioritized first.
  • Outline alternative working arrangements for employees who are classified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other health organizations as high-risk for developing certain illnesses.
  • Explain procedures to maintain workplace safety and cleanliness, which should incorporate CDC protocols.
  • Establish procedures for self-monitoring for symptoms of an illness.
  • Remind employees of any state or federal benefits for which employees may be eligible (such as emergency paid sick leave or emergency FMLA, as seen in COVID-19).
  • Ask employees to speak with their manager if they have a personal issue that may require an accommodation.

Other post-pandemic considerations to determine whether your facility is ready to bring back employees:

  • Do you need to obtain resources from external vendors to help facilitate return-to-work procedures, such as medical screenings and questionnaires?
  • Do you have adequate supplies of disinfectant and other cleaning agents, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE)? This could be masks, face shields or gloves, for example.
  • Do you need to alter your office layout to accommodate social distancing?
  • Do you need to install signage reminding employees about hygiene standards and safety measures that your company has adopted to thwart spread of illnesses? Which state and local guidelines must be included in this messaging?
  • What is management of your office building doing to secure and clean common areas and control building access?

Communicate all relevant information to your employees in advance so they know what to expect when they come back to the office.

Summing it all up

No matter the reason for an employee’s absence, you need to have a corresponding return-to-work process that facilitates their efficient and seamless re-integration into their job role and team – in accordance with all applicable laws and safety measures.

The main thing to remember is to be flexible. 

  • Work with people.
  • Engage in continual dialogue with employees.
  • Remember the importance of the human touch.

In the end, you’ll have a more connected, engaged workforce in which employees feel wanted and cared about.

For more information on establishing effective and sound workplace policies and processes, download our free e-book: HR compliance: Are you putting your business at risk?

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