Easing Employees’ Return to Work After an Injury

Tripping on the stairs at home, twisting an ankle during a pick-up soccer game, cutting a finger while preparing dinner: The most everyday activities can lead to unexpected injuries for your employees, and sometimes those injuries temporarily incapacitate them. Usually, your employees just need some time to heal before returning to the office — but even when an employee resumes work, they often require a readjustment period. That’s why it’s so important to have a plan for when employees return to work after an injury.

To start, familiarize yourself with the relevant medical and disability regulations. For example, if you have 50 or more employees, the Family and Medical Leave Act may apply. If you have 15 or more employees, and the injury leads to a permanent disability, you’ll have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. State and local laws and regulations may also influence your company’s policy for returning to work after an injury.

But beyond these requirements, what can you do to ensure that returning employees thrive after their absence? As you plan the employee’s return to work after an injury, consider how you’ll respect the employee’s rights as well as the regulations. You can ease the transition by preparing in advance to meet the employee’s needs for physical, emotional and social support. This will support the employee’s immediate productivity and long-term loyalty.

Physical Considerations

For many injuries, the most obvious change for the employee will likely be physical limitations. Even if employees don’t have a cast or bandages, they may have soft tissue damage or internal injuries that affect what they can do and for how long.

If you’re not sure what types of physical accommodations they’ll need in the workplace, simply ask. The employee may have information from a doctor or physical therapist that you can use as a reference. For example, a person with a back injury may need different seating arrangements or an adjustable desk. Someone with a broken ankle may need to elevate it for part of the day. You may also be able to prepare your workplace accommodations with the help of the Job Accommodation Network, which is funded by a contract from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

In some situations, allowing employees the flexibility to work from home for a while may be enough. This option allows them to avoid the strain of traveling to and from the office and gives them a chance to recuperate in a comfortable environment while still working.

Mental and Emotional Support

The stress of an injury and the unexpected limitations, even in the short term, take a mental and emotional toll as well. An injured employee can experience anxiety, depression and trouble concentrating during (and sometimes after) the physical recovery process.

If your company offers an employee assistance program (EAP), remind employees that they have access to help with difficult emotions designed for people recovering from injuries. Some EAP and disability benefits include specific resources to help employees return to work after an injury.

If the employee is on painkillers, you may also need to watch for signs of opioid overuse. Post-injury prescriptions can lead to long-term issues if not monitored. Increased awareness and evolving prescribing practices have mitigated opioid overuse recently, but don’t assume you’ll never see it in your workplace.

Sometimes just the logistics of dealing with an injury can be confusing and time-consuming. The employee may have to juggle seeing various doctors, coordinating physical and occupational therapy, and possibly filing for short-term disability. If your company can help them navigate insurance-related conversations, you’ll demonstrate your dedication to providing valuable employee benefits.

Social Support

Similar to mental and emotional support, social support can help employees reacclimate more quickly. That said, be mindful of each person’s preferences and sensitivities. For some, the camaraderie of the office environment will help them bounce back. For others, being in a possibly vulnerable state around others can be awkward and isolating.

For their return to the office, ask employees what social support they’d appreciate from their work team. If the injured employee has a good friend at work, that person may also have insights or ideas. But, whether it’s a special party to celebrate an employee’s return or simply a card expressing support, they’ll appreciate the acknowledgment.

Getting Employees Back on Track

Helping injured employees return to work with flexibility and compassion can be a win-win situation for them, the rest of their team and your company as a whole. Demonstrate your commitment to your employees and their well-being by supporting your staff’s needs across the physical and emotional spectrum. A smooth and successful transition for returning employees is your ticket to getting your operations back on track faster and encouraging a healthier workplace environment for your entire workforce.

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