If you have suffered an injury and been off work, you may be considering what will happen once you are ready to go back to your job. Will you be expected to jump back into your old position immediately? What do you have to disclose to your employer and co-workers about your injury? What if you aren’t able to carry out all the tasks that were part of your job before you were injured?
Anyone who has suffered an injury has a duty to mitigate their losses; that is, they have the responsibility to try to improve their situation. This is true not only from a physical standpoint (for example, an injured person must follow the medical advice and treatment plans set out by their health care providers), but also from a financial standpoint. If they are able, an injured worker must try to lessen their financial losses by going back to work as soon as it is medically safe to do so, i.e., they are cleared to do so by their doctor. For more information about your duty to mitigate your loss, please see our earlier blog post, “Mitigation and returning to work after an injury: What you need to know.”
Gradual Return to Work
When an injured person is considering a return to work, they may not be feeling completely ready to jump back into their old position. In that case, a gradual return to work may be appropriate. The purpose of a gradual return to work is to welcome the worker back to the workplace and support their efforts to reintegrate, while respecting any lingering limitations due to their injuries.
Often, returning to work can be very beneficial. Going to work can help an injured person recondition their mind and body; provide structure, routine, and a sense of normalcy; allow for social interaction; and restore a sense of purpose and accomplishment. However, these benefits are most likely to be achieved when the return to work is undertaken realistically, with due regard for the returning worker’s true state of health.
Return to Work Plans
Prior to your return, it is recommended that you work with your physician or other health care specialists and your employer to establish a return-to-work plan. These types of plans are common and are intended to provide a temporary roadmap guiding all parties’ expectations during your initial return to the workplace.
The return-to-work plan should be individualized to reflect your specific health concerns and the responsibilities of your job. You and your doctor must inform your employer ahead of time of any limits on the tasks that you are able to perform while you are still recovering (for example, you can only lift a maximum of 10 pounds).
The plan should also be flexible enough to deal with possible setbacks or a slower than expected recovery. A worker returning after an injury-related absence may feel anxiety, fatigue, and frustration. Or they may simply find that they are not as ready as everyone thought they were to take on certain tasks. An effective return-to-work plan will have mechanisms for assessing progress and making adjustments during the transition period.
With input from all parties, your plan should set out details including:
- how many hours you will work;
- what tasks you will be expected to accomplish;
- who you will be reporting to;
- physical or other limitations you may have that need to be respected or accommodated;
- objectives and milestones toward full reintegration, along with a timeline for their accomplishment;
- a process for assessing progress and making adjustments if needed;
- a communication process for all parties to share observations and feedback.
Both employers and employees have a duty to cooperate in efforts to achieve the early and safe return of the worker to the worker’s employment. Ideally, the goal is to return the worker to the position he or she held prior to being injured.
Return-to-work plans are intended to be temporary arrangements, in effect only for a limited period of time while you transition back into your job. However, in some cases, a full return to work, or to all tasks and responsibilities you previously performed, will not be possible. This may become apparent as you progress through your return to work, or it may be evident from the outset due to the nature of the injuries you suffered. In either case, your employer may have a duty to provide accommodations for you.
Your employer must accommodate your new and possibly reduced working capability up to the point where it causes the employer undue hardship (learn more about this here). Everyone is different, and employment accommodations will vary from person to person. Some accommodations that you may require are:
- reduced working hours;
- more breaks;
- modified work duties;
- extra time to complete work duties;
- modified work environment (for example, reduced light, noise, and distractions, or changes to the configuration of your workstation); and
- more training or upgrading.
In addition, alternate working arrangements such as working from home, job sharing, or flexible work hours are becoming more widely accepted. You may wish to explore with your employer whether any of these options might provide a means of accommodating your situation.
When asking for return-to-work accommodations, open communication with your employer is important. It may be that your employer simply does not have the ability, either financial or otherwise, to accommodate you in the way you need. Where this is truly the case, the circumstance may be considered to constitute undue hardship for the employer. However, if the primary obstacle to making an accommodation is financial, there are programs that might provide some assistance in covering the cost, such as Disability Related Employment Supports (DRES).
For some injured people, it may be the case that they will never make enough of a recovery to return to their jobs. Some injured workers, particularly those who work in heavy industry such as mechanics or oil rig workers, may not ever again be able to perform the job they held before their injuries. If this is the case, your doctor must put this in writing so your employer is aware that you will not be coming back to work. Keep in mind that if you are going to satisfy your duty to mitigate, the decision that you are unable to return to your former job due to your injuries must be made in conjunction with your doctors.
Communication is Key
One of the key aspects to easing your transition back into the workplace is communication. If your employer assigns you tasks that you are struggling with or that seem to be beyond the scope of your work restrictions, it is important that you bring this to their attention. Learn to recognize early warning signs around your return to work such as frustration or inability to complete assigned tasks. Discuss your doctor’s recommendations for your return to work and talk to your employer about how they could be better met; it may be that your return-to-work plan needs to be amended.
Keep your Lawyer Informed
If you are having difficulties adjusting to a return to work you should also keep your lawyer in the loop about what is happening for two reasons. First, they may be able to help you renegotiate the terms of your return-to-work plan and can advise you that you are continuing to meet your obligation to mitigate your losses. Second, if it becomes obvious that you cannot return to your old job or occupation this may affect the damages available to you if you are involved in a lawsuit against someone who caused your injuries.
Privacy and Your Return to Work
It is natural that your employer and fellow co-workers will want details about what happened to you. What you choose to disclose is a personal decision. The details of your injuries and time away from work are private, especially as regards your co-workers. It is important to strike a balance between providing people with necessary information about your injuries and keeping your personal business to yourself.
However, if you are seeking accommodations from your employer, keep in mind that they can only help to accommodate you if they know the extent of your injuries. Employers may request medical information that is reasonably related to your return to work or decisions about accommodations that may be required. Employees have a duty to respond to reasonable requests for that kind of information, and to supply information to support a medical absence.
CAM LLP has helped many injured clients with their return-to-work plans. Our lawyers are also experienced assessing losses related to an inability to return to work (or the same work). We help ensure that all your losses are taken into account in the calculation of damages that may be owed to you in a personal injury lawsuit. CONTACT us for a free consultation.