By Sue Sodek
Sue Sodek has over 20 years of human resources and consulting experience across a variety of businesses, and currently manages HR for UCEL Inc in Uxbridge, ON. She can be reached at [email protected]
While we would all agree that accident prevention and building a culture of “safety first” is the ideal, the reality is, as long as you have people doing the work, there will be injuries on the job. Learning how to help employees get back to productive work after an injury is a skill all managers must rely on at one time or another. Since no two incidents are quite the same, you’ll need to work with not only your employee, but possibly their doctor, the health and safety body in your jurisdiction, your supervisors, and the rest of your team when you’re formulating a plan to get an injured worker back on the job.
When an employee is hurt and loses time at work, it can make for a high stress time for both them and the company. The first priority of course is getting the worker medical assistance and aiding them in whatever way is most needed by providing transportation to a hospital or doctor, contacting family members, arranging to secure and deliver their personal belongings or vehicle home, anything else so they have one less worry. Whenever possible, talking to the employee directly is the easiest and best way to know what would be the most helpful in each situation.
After an injury at work, as an employer you have a variety of reporting and tracking obligations to ensure that you remain in compliance with local workplace safety insurance legislation. These obligations vary slightly by province, so if in doubt check with your provincial authority.
Beyond the initial reporting and paperwork though is your obligation (and interest) in getting that person back to work, usually as quickly as possible. In these days of labour shortages and record sick days, the last thing any company needs are seasoned workers sitting home idle. While every case must be considered individually, there are some basic steps managers should follow when bringing back a worker who has been off due to an injury, and some common places where companies often get tripped up while navigating the process.
Identify the essential functions of the job.
The simplest way to understand what tasks are essential to a job is to start with the basics. A plumber works with pipes, an electrician with wiring and a mechanic with machines. What are the role’s essential tasks? For most skilled trades, operating a vehicle, manipulating tools, and communicating with others are likely on the list as well.
Now think beyond those tasks to the physical demands of these essential components. For example, someone who installs and maintains residential furnaces probably cannot do their job without the ability to climb stairs, bend at their knees, or use their hands. How much bending, lifting, or standing are required on a daily (or hourly) basis for the job? Are there repetitive motions that may be required, which could aggravate or lead to further injury? Once you have a solid grasp of the physical demands, you can start to look for modifications, depending of course on the limitations of the injured worker.
Common error: Failing to narrow down to the essential functions of the job.
When crafting job descriptions, I’ve noticed many managers include every possible task and eventuality they can conceive a person performing, all under the heading of must do when of course most roles can be boiled down to four or five critical tasks (at most). Make sure you are keeping this in mind when you start to investigate and build your back-to-work plan. Keep to the essentials and focus on what’s required at a basic level.
Identify the barriers to performing those essential functions and possible alternatives.
The work, the individual, the severity of the injury, the amount of time needed for recovery all factor into and impact return to work discussions. Again, while each case should be weighed on its own merits, there will likely be some tasks a person can still complete, and some that will have to be modified or delegated until the worker is back to full functionality. Communicate with your employee. They may be anxious (and missing their pay cheque). Ask them to share their thoughts and let them know you are open to working out a plan for their safe return.
In general, workers who have been injured on the job need to be offered work they are qualified and able to do, and which allows them to maintain (or at least approach) their usual earnings. This can mean anything from modifying their current job or offering an alternative position for the short- or long-term. Common modifications include what’s termed light duties – meaning where possible, the physical demands of a role are eased or removed (less lifting, less travel time, or work performed sitting instead of standing). Depending on the size of your company, this may also mean moving someone who is normally in a more physically demanding role to one where they take on more administration, allowing them time to heal on the job while still earning and contributing.
Modifications are a legal obligation for all employers, but only up to the point that they cause undue hardship for your business. For example, you can and should offer someone with a broken leg work that allows them to sit where possible. However, you are not obligated to create an entirely new, unnecessary role, or to invent “busy work” just to keep someone employed. The size of your business and workforce may play a role here, and not every company has the ability to offer light duties. This may be an opportunity for vocational training, assigning partners or project work, or you may be forced to reduce hours until the worker is back to full strength. Each case is different, and openly communicating with your employee is key.
Common error: Failing (or refusing) to meet with the affected employee in a timely manner.
There are solid legal reasons why you should keep in close touch with your injured employee, but it’s also good business and the right thing to do. Ask plenty of questions and be open to what your worker has to say. There can be suspicion on both sides of these conversations.
Employees may worry they will be fired for being hurt, and employers may feel their workers are exaggerating symptoms and looking for extra vacation time. The best antidote is direct, open communication. You can’t make good decisions about what someone else is capable of doing without talking to them.
Common error: Failing to meaningfully investigate/explore alternatives.
This is a pitfall you definitely want to avoid. Legally, you must make every effort to work with your employee to try to find solutions to get them back on the job. If you dismiss every reasonable suggestion, and fail to offer any solutions of your own, you will land yourself fines and worse from WSIB, workers’ compensation board or applicable health and safety governing body. Communication and documentation, as always, is key here.
Develop a plan and monitor it for effectiveness
Once you’ve talked to your employee and determined how their position can be modified (and equally importantly, how long the modifications are going to be in place), implement your plan and start to track whether it’s working. Set calendar reminders for yourself to check in at the end of day one, week one, month one and so on, and document how things are progressing. In many cases, workers themselves will let you know when they improve, but it’s your obligation to keep the lines of communication open and ensure a return to full duties happens as soon as they are able.
Common error: Failing to keep detailed records.
We all wear so many hats over the course of our workday and keeping HR documentation up to date is never high on the to do list. There are quick ways you can do better at record keeping, and it doesn’t have to be formal or time consuming. At a minimum, when you’ve had a verbal discussion with an employee, follow up with a brief email summarizing what was decided, and you’ll have an instant record of your conversation. Keep copies of any documents sent or received from the WSIB, workers’ compensation board or applicable health and safety governing body or the employee, in the employee file for quick reference.
When the employee is ready to return to regular duties, it’s always worth having a final conversation and going over the process as a whole: how they will avoid a repeat of the injury, how they found the modifications, and if they have any suggestions or improvements for the future. While we all hope not to need them, following these steps (and avoiding the common missteps) will protect your business and help you work your way back to a fully-functioning team.