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Return-to-Work: Three Assumptions Not to Make

All of us have an interest in getting injured employees back to work as soon as possible. Although, physically, employees must heal at their own rate, we are in a position to speed up the return to work process. But we often miss our chance to do so. More often than not, these missed opportunities are the results of false assumptions that many of us make.

Here are three of the most common false assumptions that we make. How many are you guilty of making?

Assumption 1: I Can Count on the Doctor's Recommendations

Recommending a return to work schedule and appropriate work accommodations requires an understanding of the employee's medical condition (and mental state). It also requires knowledge about your workplace and processes. Although you can count on the doctors to have the former, you can't assume they have the latter. And since doctors may not understand how your business operates, the return to work schedule and accommodations they recommend might be completely unrealistic. For example, a doctor who's never seen how a warehouse operates is apt to make false assumptions about the demands of a warehouse worker's job.

Lesson: Create a job description for the doctor. List not just the regular duties of the position but alternate and light duties. Send it to the employee's doctor or have the employee give it to the doctor himself. I have also found that taking photos of job stations and of the steps involved in job processes results in much sounder recommendations.

Assumption 2: I Can't Do Anything to Speed Up the Claims Process

Opening a claim, gathering information from the parties and adjudication all take time. It generally takes carriers about three weeks to start reviewing claims. But most of the employee injuries we deal with are relatively minor and involve less than three weeks of disability leave in total! What this means is that administrative delays in processing the claim tend to prolong the employee's absence.

Lesson: Taking a proactive approach to the claims process can cut lost time. Establish open communications with the carrier right at the start and stay in touch at every stage of the process, including right after the employee visits the doctor. Create a file for each claim to store notes and related documents. Actively participating in the claims process often leads to opportunities to save time, money and grief.

Assumption 3: Employees Shouldn't Return to Work Until They're 100 Percent

This may be the worst assumption of all. So often you hear "we don't want you back until you're 100 percent." This sounds nice. But, let's face it, 100 percent fitness is an unrealistic expectation even for workers who aren't disabled. So this kind of statement and attitude tends to prolong the recovery process.

Lesson: Push for an early return that involves restricted duties. Bring employees back to work not when they're 100 percent but when they're medically capable of working. "Healing time is always longer than disability duration time", states workplace disability expert Dr. Presley Reed, Editor in Chief of The Medical Disability Advisor; 5 th Edition . Waiting until an employee is 100 percent fit will result in longer disability duration times and higher premiums.


The secret to a speedy return to work is to establish open communications with the employee, doctor and carrier right at the outset and to remain proactive throughout the recovery and claims adjudication process. Above all, you need to steer clear of the false assumptions that make the return to work longer, costlier and more frustrating than it has to be.