The longer an injured employee is off work, the less likely they are to ever return. Light duty work is a great way to give injured employees a purpose and facilitate quicker recovery. There are challenges, but it is important to utilize vocational rehabilitation efficiently. In this session at the 2020 CLM Workers’ Compensation and Retail, Restaurant & Hospitality Conference, panelists discussed the mindset of injured workers in rehabilitation and finding work available within restrictions.
- Lindsay Beach, Technical Claims Consultant at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Company
- Beth Burry-Jackson, Vice President Clinical Operations at Sedgwick
- Kirsten Kaiser Kus, Partner at Bryce Downey & Lenkov LLC
- Claire Muselman, Director of Workers’ Compensation at Continental Western Group
An employer’s success in getting injured employees back to work begins long before the accident. A sound and comprehensive return-to-work policy is imperative. This policy should include a functional job description which provides details about a person’s duties (weight-lifting, standing and walking requirements as well as psychological abilities necessary for the job). Employers should also have a modified duty program, which anticipates workers returning with reduced or restricted duties and helps reduce costs while making employees feel productive. Having these policies in place gives the return-to-work process its best chance for success. It is also important to ensure that every step of the process is documented in writing, so that the employer is prepared should the claim reach litigation.
Restoring the livelihood of injured workers is the primary purpose of workers’ compensation insurance. Setting realistic expectation up front, for the employer and the injured worker, can help in achieving that goal. Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI) is always the objective but the workers’ compensation definition can differ from the clinical definition. In workers’ compensation, the patient has reached MMI if they are at a plateau where no additional physical recovery is expected. Clinically, palliative care is still possible, but the injured worker is at the peak of recovery. Restricted or light duty can help expedite the process of reaching MMI. If an employee is in a holding pattern, or malingering, it is important to ensure that they are in compliance with medical recommendations. An Independent Medical Examiner (IME) can assist with this. An IME can help determine if a patient is malingering or whether there is another issue affecting recovery. Additionally, nurse case managers can often be more successful in facilitating discussions with medical providers than attorneys can. Communicating with the injured worker and helping to shift their mindset of what life and work will look like in the future is an important aspect of moving the process forward.
At times, it might be necessary to find creative ways to get the employee back to work, even in a restricted environment. Finding job opportunities for virtual work can give the employee a sense of routine while benefiting the employer as well. Communication is key! The carrier, employer and injured worker should be working hand-in-hand to tailor a job with restrictions. This team approach can help address common psychosocial issues.
It is important to be mindful of how the injured worker is thinking and feeling. The most important contact the worker has is with the direct supervisor or manager. This person directly impacts the worker’s new position and a relationship is already established. Consistent communication between the supervisor and the injured worker can help alleviate anxiety or negative assumptions. It helps keep the employee invested in the process. Light duty or restricted work helps get the employee in the right head space and prepares them for returning to full duty in the future. The social aspect of work helps mitigate certain psychosocial barriers for the injured worker.
Vocational rehabilitation is an important resource, but is very state-specific and can be more effective in some states than in others. Regardless, a vocational report is always valuable as the employee can be observed physically and mentally to determine how well they will do with returning to work or obtaining new employment. Some injuries, and indeed the current pandemic, have shifted the way we handle the return-to-work process. However, there are many ways to move the process forward from a distance. Telehealth has become very useful for vocational rehab, psychiatric appointments and follow-up appointments. Mediations have been completed virtually. There are vendors that can help employers find creative ways for employees to return to work virtually. No matter the situation, it is crucial to keep the process moving toward MMI and return to work.
Setting the tone within the first few days after the claim and talking about how to return the injured worker to normal life, both at work and at home, is essential for recovery. Driving successful outcomes requires engaging the worker, attending to the employer’s needs and, sometimes, finding creative solutions for returning to work.