Do Return-to-Work Programs Really Work?

March 2017

To have an employee injured on the job is challenging to say the least. Employers are not only inconvenienced, but also faced with challenging decisions. Do you settle the claim and terminate the employee? Do you continue to let the worker stay at home, pending a full recovery? Or do you bring the worker back into the workplace on modified duty?

How do you know which option is in your best interest? If you settle the claim, your workers’ compensation premiums may go up. Allow the worker to stay home and you’re lacking a valuable and experienced worker. Not to mention, studies show the longer an employee is home from work, the less likely they are to ever return to the workplace.2 You then have to deal with the headache of hiring and training a new worker. In addition, your work comp policy is also paying out lost wage benefits for as long as the injured worker stays home. This can increase your work comp premium just as quickly as settling and terminating.

One proven way to keep costs down is to help injured workers return to work as soon as medically possible, or encourage them to accept temporary or modified work assignment until they are healed and can fully return to work.

The Solution: Return-to-Work Programs

Return-to-Work programs, or RTW, help ensure smooth, earlier transitions from injury or illness back into the workplace. Implementing a RTW program can manage workers’ compensation and disability costs, which can result in substantial savings. Injured workers who are unable to perform their normal job duties due to injury can return to work in temporary duty capacity. This is often referred to as modified duty or transitional duty. A RTW program is not just a set of business practices and standard operating procedures, but also a change in culture. Adapting a RTW requires the employer to change the way he thinks about injured workers.

Benefits of Modified Duty:

  • Accelerate recovery of injured worker
  • Maintain qualified workforce with experienced workers
  • Improve workplace morale
  • Improve employee self-esteem
  • Increase likelihood of positive claim resolution
  • Stay compliant with state and federal regulations
  • Maintain workflow while adhering to production standard

Characteristics of an Effective RTW Program:

  • Promotes prompt return to regular duty job
  • Promotes rapid recovery
  • Promotes employee engagement in workplace activities
  • Reduces stress to employee
  • Reduces the likelihood of worker seeking legal representation
  • Helps maintain security for family of injured worker
  • Improves employee morale
  • Promotes communication between employer and employee
  • Reduces employee turnover
  • Reduces incentives for employees to risk filing fraudulent claims
  • Plays a key role in the company’s overall approach to proactive claim management

How to RTW programs work?

RTW programs work by providing alternate and temporary job duties for workers who cannot perform the duties outlined in their regular job. When determining job accommodations, a worker’s individual abilities and limitations should be considered. Assigning modified job duties for injured workers requires a partnership among the employer, the employee, and the medical professional. All parties must work together to develop the best way for an individual to do a job. A job can be modified by making a change in the work environment or the manner in which a job is performed. Often times job modifications can be made easily with very minimal cost. Examples of simple modifications includes purchasing a new lateral filing cabinet for a file clerk with a back injury who could not access the lowest drawers in a vertical filing cabinet or purchasing a pushcart for a mailroom worker with a back injury who can longer lift or carry his mailbag.

ROI – Is it cost effective?

A RTW program can have a significant impact on your workers’ compensation premiums. For businesses that are experience rated, indemnity (or compensation) claims have a greater impact on your rating calculation than medial-only claims. Losses for compensation claims are valued at 100 percent in the calculation, while medical-only claims are valued at 30 percent of the total loss.  Due to this variance, the difference between a medical-only claim and a compensation claim can be significant. Studies show that properly administered RTW programs can realize a savings of $8 to $10 for every dollar invested.1 If a RTW program is successful, the cost of the program can be fairly weighed against the benefits of the modified duty assignments. Furthermore, simply having a program in place - and a record of having made a reasonable offer of employment to an injured worker - can significantly strengthen the hand of the employer if the worker should pursue legal action.


RTW programs are valuable, but it's not the best solution in every single case. They work best where the employer/employee relationship is strong, where you have generally well-motivated and honest employees who take pride in their work, and where you have adequate controls in place for reporting and documenting injuries right from the beginning.


The Job Accommodation Network (Jan)

Office of Disability Employment Policy



1Hafre, Patricia F., "Evaluating the Practicality of RTW Programs: Increasing Costs and Legislative Changes Make Disability Related Problems Too Costly To Ignore," Crawford & Company, Atlanta, GA

2New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, 2011

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