Disability Planning

The Value Of Return To Work

Refocusing the challenges of re-entry to the worksite through the lens of the pandemic

by Virginia Harris

Ms. Harris is a Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist with The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. Visit www.guardinalife.com

This year, two milestone anniversaries – the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act and 75th Anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month – have reminded us of the progress we have made regarding disability inclusivity. Both anniversaries commemorate the strides we’ve made as a country to foster an inclusive workplace for people living with disabilities, while at the same time, underscoring the importance of Return-to-Work Programs, and the responsibility employers have in making accommodations for employees.

Ironically, these two milestones have happened during a pandemic, which has evolved into one of the largest public health crises our country has ever faced. The pandemic has created a shift in how many people view their own health, financial security, and a new way of working. For many working Americans, adjusting to working from home full time has been a new experience, but for many disabled workers, this is their norm or in many cases, it’s been the type of accommodation they have been seeking from employers.

It’s also notable to point out that the pandemic is shedding a light on insurance benefits that can help working Americans. One benefit is disability insurance and the role it plays should an employee have to take leave from work due to symptoms from COVID-19 and/ or mental health issues. In addition to helping protect a portion of one’s income should they have to take a leave from work, many disability insurance plans offer a holistic approach with effective return-to-work programs that can make a positive difference. In these cases, the support that an employee needs to return-to-work is paramount to their overall well-being and ability to get back to making an income.

The Financial Impact of Taking Leave

It may come as no surprise that those with disability insurance are better able to mitigate the financial impact of a disability. According to Guardian’s 8th Annual Workplace Benefits Study1 out of 5 working Americans have experienced at least one disability leave of absence in the past 10 years due to a condition, injury or loss. Among those with no disability insurance, 8 out of 10 say they have not yet fully recovered financially. Furthermore, employees who had no disability insurance at the time of their incidents have had even longer roads to financial recovery, and roughly eight in ten report that they have not fully recovered from the financial impact of their disabilities.

There is no question that the financial impact and the initial impact of the disability can take a toll on employees. Compounded by this is that employees often face the anxiety of returning to work after a prolonged absence. Depending on the employees’ situation and whether he/she had disability insurance, this can have a significant impact in their road to recovery. It also speaks to the importance of disability insurance and the integration of an effective Return to Work (RTW) Program.

A Personalized Return to Work Experience

Every employee has a personal story and reason for taking leave from work. For many, the vocational rehabilitation specialist is their point of contact, and the person who offers them hope regarding their ability to return to work. The type of cases can be wide-ranging, such as the employee who lifted a box at work and threw out his back because his job is demanding and requires hard labor.

Or the teacher who was delivering cookies and broke her sacrum after falling on the steps. This client not only had to navigate how she would return to work, but during this time, her son had an accident and broke his hip, and her mother was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Our vocational rehabilitation specialist worked closely with the client by helping her with a rehabilitation plan, providing counseling to address psycho social stressors triggered by her personal life and the pandemic, as well as completing an ergonomics assessment and purchasing the right equipment for work.

There are also inspiring stories. For example, one of our former customer’s was a physician who became paralyzed from the neck down after a diving accident while completing his medical residency. He was fortunate enough to have Guardian Disability Insurance at the time, which helped him navigate the process – from paperwork to scheduling physical therapy to expense management – so that he could focus first and foremost on his health.

He is an example of how a Return to Work plan and supportive staff can make a significant difference in someone’s ability to purse their passion. Today, he is not only an advocate for people living with disabilities, but he is also Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation as well as the Director of Services for Students with Disabilities at a highly regarded university.

Value of Vocational Rehabilitation Program and Return to Work Services

These stories are a testament to how RTW programs can have a positive impact in supporting employees recovering from a disability. The benefits of offering such programs to support injured workers and helping them return to work after a disability goes beyond the obvious benefit of increased productivity. Our research shows it can have a positive impact on employee morale and retention.

Most important, RTW programs can bolster employee perceptions of their employers, and give the impression that their employers care about them. To accomplish this, these programs need to be implemented well to positively impact employee sentiments. For the employer, it’s important to come from a place of empathy and recognize the potential anxiety that an employee may be feeling about returning to work. RTW programs are important in helping them deal with this anxiety, and perform work tasks as they once did, as well as figuring out the logistics of transitioning back to the workplace.

Roughly half of American employers feel that providing such accommodations is a very important benefits strategy for their company. The coronavirus has highlighted what people with disabilities have known for some time: with the proper work accommodations at home, employees can be successful...

An increasing number of employers are taking steps to make accommodations for returning employees in order to make the transition back to work easier. The most common accommodations used by employees after a disability is a modified work schedule. Roughly half of American employers feel that providing such accommodations is a very important benefits strategy for their company. The coronavirus has highlighted what people with disabilities have known for some time: with the proper work accommodations at home, employees can be successful. The silver lining is that employers may now recognize that accommodating employees with disabilities with work arrangements and benefits is not only possible but is critical to their long-term strategy.

Tools Employers Can Adopt for an Effective RTW Program:

The pandemic has prompted employers to think about health and wellness and re-evaluate if they have the right programs and policies in place. For those thinking about an RTW program, here are some solutions to consider:

Educate Your Front-Line Employees

It is instrumental for employers to have an effective training program for their front-line employees that helps them navigate paid leave laws, The Americans with Disability Act, and return-to-work programs. This can include the following:
Recognize disability disclosures and requests from the employees they supervise. Be disability aware, know the etiquette of disability and utilize your current resources with any questions.

Recognize a request for an accommodation and be familiar with company accommodations policies and processes regarding supervisor responsibilities within this process.

Create a Culture that is Inclusive and Encourages Open Communication

In order to have a diverse and inclusive workplace, senior leaders need to embrace policies and promote a culture that encourages open communication. Examples include:

Use “people first” language in communicating information about each other in everyday communication. When discussing claims – using affirmative phrases, person with ___. Put the person before the diagnosis. If a person has taken leave from work and is undergoing rehabilitation, it is important to keep in mind that they are undergoing a stressful time and need a supportive network.

Create or join an Employee Resource Group to encourage culture changes in the workplace. Invite speakers for “lunch and learns” on different topics and ensure the support of upper management by having them visibly attend events and adapt changes in linguistics.

Consider Leave Management Solutions

Employers today have a lot to navigate when it comes managing leave and being compliant. At the same time, the employee experience is more important than ever before. Employer should consider working with a carrier to help them create a holistic program that includes:

  • Integrating health management programs, such as Employee Assistance Programs, into the disability claim process to connect employees with the right resources at the right time and produce a better outcome. Provide easy access to “time-of-need” information about requirements of the claim submission process. Set expectations about employee responsibilities in obtaining disability benefits.
  • Have clear, well-documented return-to-work process to support workers in transitioning back to work.

Some employees may not feel comfortable requesting a formal job accommodation. In these cases, an employer may consider providing easily accessible self-accommodation ideas for environmental needs as well as exposure to stressful triggers or distractions.

Some ways employers can assist their employees in exploring accommodation needs include: displaying proper workstation set-up (i.e. desk, computer, monitor, chair, mouse, keyboard) to avoid spine and musculoskeletal strain; encouraging employees to practice the 20/20/20 rule to avoid eye strain; using activity logs to journal the task they are performing and their body/mind response; list of wellness phone apps that employees may explore to act as timers / reminders to take “time out” for breaks, medication, stretching; displaying Employee Assistance Program (EAP) contact information prominently where employees can see it or access it remotely.

Given the unchartered waters we are currently navigating as members of society, it is more important than ever for many employers to find holistic solutions that will safely guide employees “back into the harbor” of returning to work. Whether its employers planning ahead by educating managers about how to support their employees or developing an inclusive strategy that encourages open communication at the workplace, these efforts will increase the employer’s standing as a company of choice.

At the same time, there is also a lot for employers to consider so working with a broker and/or carrier that provides absence management solutions will help employers create an optimal employee experience that can be a differentiator. If there is anything we have learned as a result of the the pandemic, it’s that employees are looking to the workplace for resources and a nurturing, supportive environment.


1- Unless otherwise noted, the source of all information is from is from Guardian’s 8th Annual Workplace Benefits Study titled Workforce 2020.
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©Copyright 2020 The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America,
2020-112381 (Exp. 11/22)