Returning to work after an extended absence can be an overwhelming experience for any employee. When the absence is due to an illness or injury, navigating the journey back to work can be even more complicated. An employee may be unable to return to their prior position, or it may be necessary to provide them with accommodations to be able to perform their essential job functions. There may also be some anxiety about potential challenges they could face as they re-enter the workforce or complicating factors impacting their productivity that only arise once they are back on the job.
Given the complex nature of an absence, employers must be prepared to provide the necessary support to employees returning to work, both before and throughout their transition back into the workforce. There are several factors employers can keep in mind to help ensure a successful transition for all involved, but, at minimum, employers should be ready to have open conversations, know the law, and provide training and resources.
The importance of speaking honestly and having open conversations
When an employee receives full or conditional clearance from their medical provider to return to work, a conversation should be scheduled to understand the nature of the employee’s abilities and any temporary or permanent modifications they may need. Depending on the size of an organization, it may be helpful to work with a member of the Human Resources team along with the employee’s supervisor to review the job description, understand the essential functions, and determine whether accommodations, modifications, or an alternative position is most suitable. All these considerations must be weighed within the context of business needs and capabilities.
Understanding and complying with the law
Since many leaves of absence fall under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), covered employers must abide by the legal requirements for returning to work. According to the United States Department of Labor, “on return from FMLA leave (whether after a block of leave or an instance of intermittent leave), the FMLA requires that the employer return the employee to the same job, or one that is nearly identical (equivalent).” This could mean needing to identify additional options for the employee, such as:
- The same or similar work schedule with duties/responsibilities that require the same amount of effort and/or authority.
- A position at a “geographically proximate worksite” to ensure a similar commuting time or distance.
- Equal compensation and benefits, including bonuses, overtime, and profit-sharing, they had before the absence, and any pay increases that occurred while on leave (assuming they were unconditional).
Providing training and resources
Formal training may be necessary for an employee returning to work in a new role. If an employee is returning to their previous position, but has been given new tools or systems to use as part of an accommodation, it may not be as obvious that training is needed. It is important that employers recognize these instances as adequate resources to meet those needs may not exist within their current training program.
As part of the return-to-work process, a vocational resource can help assess the employee’s level of knowledge and comfort with any new job responsibilities or tools they must use to do the work. This is important for ensuring the employee can successfully complete their job duties, and the employer complies with their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In addition to training, it’s also important to offer access to resources for obtaining ongoing support for any questions or concerns that may arise. The return-to-work experience can be an emotional process, with some employees experiencing a lack of confidence or worry about how others perceive their job performance. Providing a point of contact that is available to listen to the employee’s concerns can help offset the indirect impacts of returning to work and ensure the employee is successful in their transition back to work.
Brown & Brown Absence Services Group has a team of professionals with extensive experience in workplace accommodations and ADA issues. If you’re unsure how to best support an employee returning to work, Brown & Brown has the expertise, so contact us today to see how our experienced vocational rehabilitation specialists can provide you with support and guidance in these areas.
Nothing herein should be considered legal advice.