Several workers putting their hands in a group celebrating coming back to work.

Employers Can Favorably Impact Employee Return to Work

By Michelle Hopkins | 11/09/2021

Return-to-work process done right

A well-designed return-to-work program is essential for a stable workforce because the longer an injured employee is away from work, the greater the likelihood the employee never returns. An employee who is away from work for six months or longer has less than a 50 percent chance of returning to gainful employment, often winding up on long-term disability.1

A return-to-work program that creates a “capability” mindset and includes a modified duty program can beneficially restore the employee to normal work and life faster, as described in a Society of Human Resource Management article.2

Conversely, using a passive, “wait-and-see” approach may run the risk of relatively minor injuries festering with time into permanently disabling conditions. The wrong approach could prolong return to work even for employees recovering from the most common injuries at work, as listed by the National Safety Council (NSC)3:

  • Sprains, strains, and tears to muscles, ligaments, and tendons from twisting, stretching, overuse, and overexertion
  • Soreness or pain, such as chronic back pain
  • Cuts, lacerations, or punctures
  • Broken bones
  • Repetitive stress injuries

Employers have an important role

There’s a myth that has grown up around return-to-work programs. That is, once the program exists, there is nothing more for the employer to do. Just send any injured employees off for care, wait, and hope the recovery happens speedily.

The truth is, there are many ways an employer can influence effective return to work, and they were discussed at length in the Concentra® webinar, “Negotiating Successful Return to Work,” presented by Maja Jurisic, MD, CPE, vice president and medical director of Strategic Accounts for Concentra. You can read about it below, but it’s highly recommended that you watch the webinar in its entirety (about 40 minutes) and share it with your frontline supervisors, as well as human resources and safety professionals.

See Webinar and Transcript

Dr. Jurisic has extensive experience in achieving efficient employee return to work after an injury and in outlier case management – those costly cases that fail to progress as expected and remain open for long periods of time. Dr. Jurisic is a consultant to the U.S. Department of Labor on the federal RETAIN initiative (Retaining Employment and Talent after Injury/Illness Network) on stay-at-work/return-to-work strategies.

Don’t sabotage return to work with careless words

While the employer, the employee, and the clinician all have a shared goal of physical healing, the injured employee decides how much effort to put into the recovery process. Hence, any words that sound harsh or judgmental or any perceived attempts to pressure the employee back to work too soon can act as a damaging undercurrent that sets back recovery progress. While it’s true that returning to work as soon as functionally possible is in the employee’s own interest, that fact alone will not carry the day if the employee believes a supervisor lacks empathy or is conspiring with the clinician to force early resumption of work at any cost.

Dr. Jurisic explains that a supervisor’s casual remark can hinder recovery if it conveys doubt about the time needed or the seriousness of the injury itself. “Negative emotions feed pain,” she says. Further, she adds, an irritable attitude and non-supportive words not only are emotionally upsetting but can also create a greater experience of pain for the employee.

If you watch the webinar, you can learn more about the brain science behind this effect and get best practices to follow from Dr. Jurisic so you can avoid setbacks like this with your own injured employees.

Return to work is a multi-step process that begins with a determination of causation; that is, the clinician investigates whether the injury is work-related. This is followed by diagnosing the injury or illness, developing a treatment plan, and managing return to work. There is value in the employer being engaged in the process, along with the employee and the clinician.

For example, in the webinar Dr. Jurisic lets employers in on a secret. She shares the “Five D’s of Danger” that Concentra clinicians are taught to use in deciphering the most problematic injury cases. These are signs exhibited by the employee that the employer may observe. When a clinician is privy to an employer’s observations, as well as his or her own, the volume of information to move the injury case forward to closure increases. Thus, employer involvement can help accelerate return to work and hold down workers’ compensation/health care costs.

To learn how supervisors’ involvement can improve your company’s performance on work injury and illness cases, watch the Concentra webinar, “Negotiating Successful Return to Work,” featuring Dr. Maja Jurisic.

In 2017, Concentra developed an approach that has succeeded in resolving outlier cases – those injury cases where recovery does not progress at the expected rate. These frequently are the costliest work injury claims. Developing a successful strategy to resolve these cases is both a skill and an art.

Dr. Jurisic presents a seven-part strategy that you can remember with the acronym, “S-U-C-C-E-S-S.” The latter part of the webinar, “Negotiating Successful Return to Work,” explains it all. Why not watch and learn?

 See Webinar and Transcript


  1. Do You Know the Compelling Benefits of a Return to Work Program?” The Olson Group. January 17, 2019.
  2. How to Create Return-to-Work/Light-Duty Programs,” Society for Human Resource Management.
  3. Workplace Injury Statistics: Injury Rates and Most Common Workplace Injuries,” Work Injury Source. July 5, 2021.