Economic and Social Benefits of Return-To-Work


Despite the fact there are societal and legal requirements to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace; a comprehensive disability management program has many economic and social benefits. Simply being off work can be bad for your health.  This article will focus on the economic and social benefits of managing disability in the workplace.  It will provide you with key steps to develop an accommodation program and tools for planning return to work.


Despite the fact there are societal and legal requirements to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace; a comprehensive disability management program has many economic and social benefits. Simply being off work can be bad for your health.

Health Benefits:  The statistics are stark. One in 13 of the working population claims disability benefits. If someone is off sick for six to 12 months, there is a 90% chance they will not be returning to work in the foreseeable future; if they are off for more than two years, they are more likely to retire or die than return to work. (Morrison, September 2007)

Worklessness (being off work due to injury or illness or inability to work) leads to poorer physical and mental health, loss of self-worth and self-confidence, poorer social integration and more medical care. It has been calculated to have the same negative health impact as smoking 10 cigarettes a day. Waddell (2007) indicated that “What really matters in work is the social context. We need to change the culture of work, stop focusing on the potential toxic impact of work and understand that long-term worklessness is one of the greatest risks to health.”

Reports in the literature have shown that people who are out of work as a result of disability or unemployment are more likely to have other diseases develop, and, ultimately, their lifespan is reduced when compared to people who are employed. (Janlert, 1997)

Social Benefits: Disability management programs demonstrate that the organization values its workers and is able to retain a valuable worker. Experienced workers are familiar with the workplace and the specific requirements of their job. Considerable time and resources have been invested in the training and orientation of workers so that they can provide the quality of service that is demanded. When a worker is ill or injured, they may not be able to provide the same level of service and in addition, replacement workers may be needed, or perhaps other workers will have to work short- staffed. Either way, quality of service may be affected. It is in the best interest to have injured workers back as soon as possible to maintain production and quality. This in turn will lead to an increase in worker morale and productivity. For the worker, it will reduce the negative effects of disabling injury/illness and individuals can regain their former income levels and a chance to perform meaningful work thus promoting both the individual and the individual’s family and social well being.

Financial Benefits: For employers, injuries, illness and disability can have significant costs. Estimates in the United States are that employers spend up to 8% of their payroll on disability and disability insurance (Margoshes, 1998).

A survey of Canadian employers found that employer’s short-term disability costs on average were 2% of payroll costs while long term disability costs accounted for 1.2% of payroll. Workers Compensation costs accounted for 2.4% of payroll for a total of 5.6% of payroll going directly to disability costs.  (Watson and Wyatt, 1998)  This same survey repeated in 2003 indicated a doubling of short term disability costs in less than 5 years. (Watson Wyatt, 2004)

Time lost from work due to injuries have a financial cost in terms of both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs are the costs that are most easily tabulated. They include medical costs, compensation and insurance. Indirect costs are also costs to an organization, although they are a little less obvious. Indirect costs include costs related to time spent investigating incidents and injuries, re-training staff, overtime costs for replacement workers, reduced service and care.

It is estimated that the indirect costs of a workplace injury could be as high as four times higher than the direct cost of an injury (WSIB, 2004).   The average cost of a workplace claim in 2004 was $98,000 (WSIB 2004) a more than 20% increase since 2002.

In 2008 Martin Shain completed a study to determine the cost of mental health in the workplace.  The final tally was between 11 and 33 Million Dollars in costs to Canadian businesses. 2009 by J. Samra, M. Gilbert, M. Shain & D. Bilsker. What is Psychological Safety & Health? Consortium for Organizational Mental Healthcare (COMH). This is for mental health conditions alone. The total cost of all disability for employers is estimated to be 12% – 19% of payroll depending on what the employer includes in this equation.

Direct costs of disability in the workplace include:

  • wage replacements (WI, Sick leave, STD, LTD, WSIB)
  • replacement workers or overtime costs
  • training costs
  • recruitment costs
  • administrative charges and time

Indirect costs of disability in the work place include:

  • lost productivity
  • lost sales
  • supervisor and support staff time and frustrations
  • coworkers morale
  • employee pain and suffering

While many organizations are tracking and seeking to control the direct cost of these issues, they are generally not tracking the indirect costs, particularly productivity losses due to illness/disability. Despite the impact that workforce productivity has on profitability, this issue is often overlooked when organizations calculate the cost of employee absences and the value of health and productivity policies designed to improve employee effectiveness (Watson Wyatt 2007).

The Conference Board of Canada puts the cost of disability per employee per day at $300. That does not include loss of productivity, overtime pay for healthy workers, dissatisfied customers, replacement staff, and low morale.

A survey completed by Gowan Health Consultants in 2008 found that over 25 days lost per employee per year was still common in 16% of workplaces. Only 15% of employers had less than 5 days lost per employee per year.

Statistics Canada indicated a total of 8.1 days per employee per year was lost to disability in 2007.

The Participation and Activity Limitation Survey in 2006 reported that “4.4 million Canadians living in households reported having an activity limitation yielding a disability rate of 14.3%. This is an increase from the 2001 disability rate of 12.4%, when 3.6 million Canadians reported limitations in their everyday activities due to a physical or psychological condition or to a health condition.

 Labour force participation for people with activity limitations rose from 56.9% in 2001 to 59.6% in 2006, again reducing the gap with people without activity limitations.

 The unemployment rate for people with activity limitations dropped from 13.2% in 2001 to 10.4% in 2006, narrowing the gap by roughly one-third with those without activity limitations.”

Source: Statistics Canada, Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, 2006

The Institute for Work and Health published a study that supported the importance of having written policies and procedures to manage disability to reduce the cost and duration of disability related absences. (Amick, et al, 2011)

What can you do as an Employer?

  1. Prepare policies and procedures that support attendance for individuals with disabilities
  2. Provide processes that allow employees to be accommodated in the workplace
  3. Train managers on ways to manage employees with disabilities and ensure performance of work duties that are within the employees capabilities
  4. Coach managers and employees through the accommodation processes
  5. Prepare a business case for accommodations in the workplace to ensure that senior management supports the resources needed to accommodate individuals
  6. Gain senior management commitment through regular reporting
  7. Develop evaluation tools that will allow programs to be improved
  8. Stay up to date on the latest accommodation resources, legal decisions and case law that impacts your business
  9. Develop a team of resources to assist you in the accommodation process
  10. Ensure that you have measurement for the services provided that evaluates the outcomes by both the managers and the employees
  11. Connect with your colleagues and network on state of the art processes and program tools
  12. Attend training programs that will allow you to manage the accommodations in your workplace effectively

Points to Remember in Communication with an employee with a disability:

  • The individual is a worker – focus on return to work early, discuss return to work at the first opportunity after the injury and illness.
  • Focus on what the individual can do at work. ( Use the “Can Do, Can’t Do, Maybe Do checklist”)
  • Acknowledge safety and restrictions and ensure the modified work adheres to this.
  • Offer support and coping strategies and suggestions at the workplace.
  • Focus on the individual as a valued employee doing meaningful and productive work.
  • Deal with issues regarding relationships or communication at work




The following outlines the communication during a reintegration, return to work meeting.   Each employee has different needs that will require accommodation or communication.  This is only a guideline for a return to work meeting agenda.  It is important that the agenda is flexible in order to allow collaboration with the employee when developing the plan:

  • Welcome employee back to the company and express the company’s commitment to have the employee back into the workplace
  • Review the information that has been provided from the health care provider with the employee (restrictions, return to work date)
  • Ask the employee what they feel they will be able to do on return to work, what they will have most difficulty performing in the job, and how it can be changed so that they can do the tasks.
  • Discuss the accommodation
  • Is the accommodation feasible for your department? If not what other options exist?
  • Who will do the tasks that the employee cannot?
  • What should the employee do if concerns arise?
  • When will you meet on return to work plan?
  • What productivity expectations will there be for the employee?
  • How long will the plan be and how will it progress (i.e. when will they do the additional tasks)?
  • What will be discussed with the coworkers and team?
  • Who will order any equipment needed?
  • How is Organizational Health involved in the return to work program?
  • Adjust or agree to the accommodation
  • Discuss the importance of communication during return to work
  • Set the return to work plan and confirm the return to work date
  • Thank the employee for their involvement in the meeting and express your commitment to make the return to work plan successful.

Develop Individualized Return to Work Plans

Your individual return to work plan lays out the steps that need to be taken to return an employee to their pre-accident job. It is normally developed jointly by the return to work program manager (who co-ordinates the process), the worker, the worker’s treating practitioner (through the provision of restrictions), the worker’s supervisor, and the union (if applicable). Supervisors from other areas, the medical department, or staff from the WSIB/insurer may assist in the process when the need arises.

Your return to work plan should include the following:

  • The goals of the plan -These goals set out milestones for the worker to achieve until they reach the final goal: a return to pre-accident employment.
  • Actions required to achieve these goals. This includes the responsibilities of the worker, the supervisor, and any co-workers who will be assisting the worker.
  • Time frames for achieving these goals so that there is a yardstick to measure the worker’s progress. It is important that the plan has a beginning and an end, as modified/graduated work is a means to achieve a return to pre-accident work, and is not an end in itself.
  • Meaningful and Productive Work Activities – The employee and the department need to find suitable work that meets the abilities of the employee and the needs of the department. It is wise to start always with the employee’s own job and make slight changes to that job instead of moving to a new or “modified job”.  Having meaningful work that is contributing to the department’s bottom line will ensure that the program is focused on meeting the employee and department’s needs.
  • A clear definition of what is considered progress (e.g., the worker can work five hours a day by week three, or the worker can assume tasks by week five).
  • Health care needs – If, for example, the worker is going to attend therapy during working hours, these visits must be coordinated with the requirements of the proposed work placement. Staff that will be impacted by these health care needs will also need to be advised -with the worker’s permission.
Gowan Consulting would be pleased to assist your organization in ensuring that you have the policies and procedures in place to address workplace accommodation and return to work.  Let our skilled trainers assist you in providing your workplace with the understanding that they require to manage these issues.

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