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5 Innovative Approaches That Will Help Improve Return-to-Work Strategies

Return-to-work programs are proven to reduce workers’ compensation costs, but in order to have a lasting impact, top return-to-work strategies must be in place.
By: | September 18, 2019

Injuries and accidents have a lasting impact on a person, especially when they happen on the job. Work-related injuries not only affect the health and wellness of a person but also their livelihood. What happens, then, when an injury keeps a worker from returning to the job?

Data shows that three months after a disabling injury, the likelihood of a worker ever returning to work is around 90%. That probability drops to 32% at one year and even lower to 5% at two years. Time is not on the employee’s side when it comes to disability, and the health consequences to the individual can be significant.

Enter the company’s return-to-work strategy.

“Return-to-work programs improve workplace safety as well as increase morale as the employees feel safe knowing their employer advocates strategies for a safe and healthy return,” said Erica Fichter, senior vice president of medical management, Broadspire, A Crawford Company.

As the term “return-to-work” indicates, the purpose of this type of program is to get injured workers back on the job. The added benefit from an effective return-to-work program is lowered workers’ comp costs. It’s important, however, that a return-to-work program be in place before incidents arise.

“Return-to-work strategy is in the forefront of our clients’ minds,” said Fichter. “There are a lot of tools out there to assist in the creation of a program that can help both pre- and post-injury.”

It’s easy to silo “advanced strategies” from the small-scale solutions, but at Broadspire, return-to-work improvement is about approaching it from all levels. As an example, Fichter said something as simple as having a job description on file can help prevent injury and get workers back to their job if an accident occurs.

“Understanding the demands of a position facilitates the ability to recognize areas of concern for injury,” she explained.

“All this information can initiate pre- and post-loss safety,” said Fichter. “It’s critical in the prevention of injury, avoidance of further injury or exacerbating a current injury.”

There are several other innovative approaches a company can take to enhance their return-to-work program and keep workers safe. Here are five ways that employers can invest in today.

1. Knowing what an employee is hired to do and what they are actually doing while on the job can prevent injury and improve workers’ comp costs.

Erica Fichter, Senior Vice President of Medical Management, Broadspire, A Crawford Company

A successful return-to-work transition can be jeopardized if the worker returns too soon after injury. Employers can do everything right to get an injured worker back to their job, but if the worker is placed in a position that they are not physically able to do, the results can be disastrous.

“That’s the power behind a job description,” said Fichter.

A thorough job description will answer several important questions: How much weight must be lifted, how often and for how long? Do employees lift objects from the floor? Is it to waist height or overhead? How far does an employee carry an object, and do they use the assistance of a lifting device?

In addition to lifting, job descriptions document how long an employee sits or stands, if they bend or squat, or climb stairs or ladders.

“It’s important to really understand the physical aspects of a job in order to bring an injured worker back,” Fichter said.

A database filled with job descriptions enables an employer to remain proactive before potential injury as well. Knowing what the job entails and placing the appropriate worker in that role will positively impact prevention efforts.

It will also positively affect return-to-work costs, because workers will not return to a position they are not yet able to do.

2. Adopting a biopsychosocial model and focusing on the whole person gives a better understanding of what is impacting recovery.

The term “biopsychosocial model” has been a buzzword in the workers’ comp space for years and has increasingly been adopted into return-to-work programs across the board.

The idea is to look at an injured worker holistically: What are the biological, psychological and socio-economic factors impacting a worker’s recovery?

A work-related injury affects more than the job; the worker’s medical history, homelife and support influence how quickly and safely a person heals.

Fichter said the social aspect is most important when it comes to return-to work.

“When you start the conversation after initial injury, you need to learn about the person’s place in the home,” she said.

How many people live in the household? Is the injured worker married? Does their spouse work? From there, it’s important to learn if they have any children and what their ages may be.

“Is the injured worker considered the primary caregiver?” said Fichter. “You start to gain a lot of valuable information about what their recovery time might look like based upon their homelife responsibilities and support system.”

It is through training and the use of risk assessment tools that care managers gain the skills needed to best serve their company and their patients. Investing in these tools can help measure specific factors like depression, pain, perceived injustice or fear manifesting in an injured worker.

Knowing the obstacles can help better predict what treatment is needed during the road to recovery.

3. If an injured worker has restrictions or is unable to return to their previous role, investing in transferable skills analysis can improve outcomes for all parties.

“Transferable skills analyses and assessments are important return-to-work strategies, because you’re looking at the disability in totality,” explained Fichter.

After injury, there is a very real possibility that a worker may not be able to return to the job they held before.

In these instances, employers can invest in transferable skills assessment — in which they analyze a worker’s current skills and current state of health and determine where they might be able to continue on as an employee.

Fichter’s seen firsthand how these analyses can benefit both employer and employee.

A surgical technician suffered severe damage to his upper back while at work. He was able to receive the necessary surgeries to get back on his feet, but due to the extent of his injuries, however, he was unable to return to the job.

Fichter’s team at Broadspire conducted a vocational assessment in the hopes to find a suitable alternative placement for this worker. They found that with the types of injuries he had, heavy lifting would be out of the question. But he could drive.

“We decided he could work as a trash truck driver,” she explained.

“At first, the worker thought he wouldn’t be able to drive the trucks, because he was unable to pick up the bins and empty them into the truck,” Fichter said.

But as it turned out, the company wasn’t looking for someone to both drive its trucks and unload the trash bins.

“He had a team of two assistants who would engage in lifting; the injured worker could easily drive the truck.”

Now, the worker is gainfully employed, and the employer has a reliable driver.

“He also got a pay increase,” added Fichter. “Overall, it was a fantastic success story for all involved.”

4. Partnering with a volunteer organization can get workers back on a schedule and to work faster.

While transferrable skills analyses have positive outcomes, sometimes a company does not have available job openings that meet an injured worker’s skillset.

However, other options are available, like volunteering.

“Broadspire has, what we call, the ‘Worker on Loan’ program,” said Fichter.

“What makes this a differentiated program for Broadspire is that we work to partner our employers with volunteer organizations.”

A return-to-work coordinator reviews the injured worker’s case and finds transitional duties at a volunteer or nonprofit in order to get the worker back into a schedule.

“The idea is to match the worker with a nonprofit that can manage their restrictions and give them a sense of worth,” Fichter said. “They’re up, they’re doing something, they’re getting out of the house, and they’re starting to get a schedule back together again.”

In one instance, Broadspire had an injured worker in their care who needed multiple wrist surgeries. While light duty accommodations worked for some time, the final surgery prevented the worker from returning.

“Our case manager noticed the employee was showing signs of depression,” explained Fichter. But through Worker on Loan, the team saw an opportunity with Habitat for Humanity.

“It was a temporary job that gave the worker a sense of accomplishment.”

As a return-to-work strategy, Worker on Loan is a team effort. The treating physician, the employer, the return-to-work coordinator and the worker are involved in communication and the transitional duty effort. For this worker, the team’s efforts saved $5,000 in total temporary disability and returned the worker to full duty in nine weeks.

It’s a win-win for employer and nonprofit, too: “The employee is getting back to work, the employer is active in the community and gaining goodwill, and the nonprofit is gaining support.”

 “You’re helping them regain or maintain employment and achieve independence at their own rate.”

5. Using ergonomic assessments to identify risk and prevent re-injury.

Ergonomic assessments act as a scientific approach to identify risks at an injured employee’s workstations.

These assessments show if a worker is using work equipment improperly, which can lead to work-related musculoskeletal disorders if not corrected.

Ergonomic assessments can also identify the best set up to prevent injury in the first place and show if a worker is prone to injury based on the work environment itself.

Knowing where the risk areas lie enables risk managers to make measurable improvements in the workplace to ensure all job tasks are within an employee’s capabilities and limitations.

In order for assessments to hold true value, however, they need to be an ongoing function incorporated into daily operations, said Fichter.

“The added benefit of reviewing an injured worker’s station is that any changes made could be made for other individuals within the organization,” she added.

“Combined with training and prevention programs, these assessments are a benefit for both pre- and post-losses and ultimately strengthen a return-to-work program.”

Building the Right Return-to-Work Strategy Takes a Skilled Workers’ Comp Team

When it comes to these innovative return-to-work strategies, workers’ comp and medical management expertise is critical to ensure each is implemented effectively.

Every injury has its financial toll, but every injury also comes with a human aspect. Finding the balance between both is vital to the return-to-work program.

At Broadspire, Crawford & Company’s global TPA, the medical management team works to deliver customizable and scalable workers’ comp solutions to help injured workers return-to-work quickly and safely.

Their team of experts is monitoring all processes for efficiency, striving to enable fast, safe recovery that benefits worker and payer.

“It’s a collaborative effort in which we combine analytics with our team of nurse triage, case management, medical bill review and more to help improve costs and recovery times by offering personalized care and advanced analytics,” said Fichter.

It is through a combination of these elements that return-to-work improvement is made possible.

To learn more, visit https://www.crawco.com/services/medical-management.



This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Broadspire, A Crawford Company. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.

Broadspire provides customized, integrated claims solutions to clients across the globe. Through our industry-leading expertise, innovative technology and unrelenting focus on continuous improvement, we implement programs that result in lower costs, faster recovery times, and greater satisfaction for everyone involved.

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