Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre helping sick leave employees ease back into work

We tend to take a black-or-white approach to sick leave. Traditionally, if an employee became sick or injured, the organization would get a doctor’s note giving a return date. In other words, one day they are off work and the next they’re back to full hours. But is that a realistic expectation? Is it really the best thing for the employee?

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre’s (TBRHSC) Return to Work Program is helping employees ease back into work for an earlier – and safer – return. This graduated system of modified hours and duties customized to personal and organizational needs “work-hardens” employees to help them gradually get them back to work.

“We help employees transition over time from being totally unable to work to getting back to their full hours and duties,” said Lorraine Campbell, Manager of Occupational Health and Safety at the TBRHSC in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Research shows that getting back to work faster can actually be a huge benefit for the employee. The Institute for Work and Health, a not-for-profit research organization in Ontario, did a systematic review and found that most research studies concluded that returning to work was beneficial to the employee both physically and mentally.

It also clearly helps the institution from an HR and a financial perspective since any illness or injury can negatively affect an organization. Either a replacement needs to be found or other employees will be required to take on extra duties and/or work longer shifts. Getting employees back to work sooner, even on modified duties, reduces overtime hours and eases the burden on other employees.

If the injury is work related, WSIB claims can increase the financial burden for the organization. Each hour back to work can be worth up to ten hours of recovered salary to the system.

But ultimately, it comes down to how this approach benefits the employee.

“For many reasons, it’s better for the employee to return to work earlier within their restrictions. They are at lower risk for depression, it improves their physical health because it keeps them moving and active, and it helps them ease back into work instead of going to full hours all at once,” Campbell said.

The success of the program relies upon getting that list of restrictions from the employee’s physician. For example, if the employee is having knee surgery, they usually require eight weeks to fully recover. However, that employee may be able to return for restricted duties and modified hours after four to six weeks. Under the Return to Work program, a meeting is set up at that time between the employee, Human Resources, a union representative (if applicable), and one of two Disability Consultants from Occupational Health department: Louise Harrison, who coordinates those with work-related injuries, and Roberta Wood, who coordinates non-work-related injuries. Together, the team creates a schedule based on the restrictions supplied by the employee’s physician.

The first priority is to find work for the employee similar to their current position and in their current department. If that is not possible, alternate positions may be found including on projects that are physically less demanding like hand-washing compliance audits or other important projects. These types of short-term positions have traditionally been difficult to staff for various reasons, yet have a significant impact on the TBRHSC.

Safety for the employee is always the guiding priority. The employee’s work status is reviewed with adjustments made to the employee’s work schedule as necessary to ensure a healthy return to their previous work status before the injury.

“Each staff member remains on a modified work schedule, building them up over time to full hours and full duties,” Campbell said.

“In an organization as big as the TBRHSC, it’s unavoidable that some will be on injury or sick leave,” said Rod Morrison, VP, Human Resources and Organizational Development. He added that on any given day, the TBRHSC, which employs approximately 2,700 people, could have 60-90 employees on sick leave. “The Return to Work Program is one way we are managing the situation – rather than being managed by it – and helping employees get back to work earlier.”

By all accounts the program is working, though there have been some challenges. One was getting the required information from physicians. Initially, some had concerns about how this approach affected their own patient confidentiality obligations. As well, doctors were simply not used to a graduated approach, i.e. providing a list of restrictions instead of a return-to-work date. Over time though, these have become less of a problem, Campbell said.

Compliance is sometimes an issue as well. If an employee is asked to do something their doctor has restricted them from doing – move a patient, for example – he or she is supposed to decline. That hasn’t always happened though. The TBRHSC meets that challenge through employee education (e.g. injury prevention) and by managers reinforcing with staff that they must adhere to their work restrictions.

Overall though, this program combined with related programs (including prevention and other Occupational Health and Human Resources programs) has had a significant impact on hours lost to injury and illness, and has proven to be an effective way of easing employees back into the workplace after injury or illness.

“Not only has the Return to Work Program helped the organization to function more efficiently, but it’s had a big effect on employees themselves. They feel like they are making a valuable contribution, and they appreciate the fact that they can work shorter shifts and modified duties to build up to their regular hours instead of being expected to do it all at once,” Campbell said.