Early Return to Work: Walking the Walk
By Roberta Etcheverry, CPDM
Diversified Management Group
Based on first-hand experience and feedback from other industry professionals, we know absenteeism results in lost productivity, whereas return to work (RTW) is a “win-win,” generating cost savings for employers and improved health and employment outcomes for employees.1 Yet many employers have struggled to move past “talking the talk” to actually implementing successful programs. Employers face real and perceived hurdles when creating formal RTW programs, including the cost of time and resources to develop and implement as well as the ongoing management required to maintain. Some employers simply may not know where to start.
So how do we go from “talking the talk” to “walking the walk”? The implementation of a transitional RTW program by Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) provides some insight. Their challenges were similar to those of other employers, according to Heather Hornbrook, PG&E’s Director of Integrated Disability Management (IDM). One such challenge was addressing the concerns of their collective bargaining units that the program would “take” work from their members. To meet this concern, their IDM team partnered with the labor relations team to clearly explain the program benefits and goals, and send the union representatives updated task assignment lists.
The IDM team laid the groundwork for its program by developing a task bank of available productive assignments that employees can perform while on transitional duty. Initially, Hornbrook said, the task bank didn’t have enough productive assignments to accommodate all the employees needing transitional duty. The team overcame this by:
- Streamlining the task approval process with the labor relations team and union representatives
- Creating an automated process for departments to submit available task ideas
- “Socializing” the program throughout the organization with communications such as bi-weekly management webinar trainings, safety council meeting presentations, and regular program updates during Safety & Health team daily calls and department all-hands meetings
- Identifying program champions to identify productive tasks and further promote the program
Program groundwork also included ongoing communication about the program parameters and objectives, and eventually gaining the support of all collective bargaining units. Further program groundwork involved communications to recruit the cooperation of healthcare providers. PG&E educated its medical provider network physicians around their responsibility to provide a clear picture of restrictions, in lieu of generic “off work” statements, to support PG&E’s efforts to accommodate.
All the groundwork to build cooperation with stakeholders paid off. Hornbrook noted that with collaboration between workers’ compensation and stay-at-work/return-to-work representatives, PG&E is able to use their program to place both occupational and nonoccupational cases. The process is further streamlined by access to the same online claims system to share data and track status. Reports on employees placed in tasks, employees needing placement, and cases needing further clarification or intervention are produced weekly for the teams to review.
PG&E’s transitional RTW task bank began operating in August 2017. By mid-May 2018, they found placements for 90% of eligible employees with temporary limitations who could not be accommodated in their base department. They saved 1,403 lost work days, an average of 22 days per case, compared to time that would have been lost without the transitional job placements. Tracking and reporting on program successes further sustains upper management support for the program. PG&E’s success with this systematic approach shows how employers can work past the challenges to reap the benefits of an integrated early RTW program.
- U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. Transitional Back to Work: Policies to Support Return to Work after Injury or Illness. Aug. 2007. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/odep/topics/pdf/PAP_Transition%20Back%20to%20Work%20FINAL_2017-09-07.pdf.