New strategies for optimizing vocational rehab and return to work programs


With massive shifts in workplace culture and practice over the past several years, opportunities for excellence in your return to work and vocational rehabilitation programs abound.

The post-pandemic realities of vocational rehab and return to work

And just as our workplaces have changed significantly in the years following COVID-19, so too has our workforce. Some individuals changed industries entirely when they found themselves out of work during the pandemic, and they opted to stay in their new field even after things began to return to a post-pandemic normal.

We’re also contending with record-low unemployment numbers, making it harder for employers to fill vacancies. The challenge is in finding well-trained, high-level candidates — as well as keeping tenured employees who can organically share and pass on valuable organizational knowledge. Many of the new injuries we’re seeing are from people who have been on the job for a year or less; onboarding new employees who have less background knowledge, training, etc. means more safety issues, which means more claims — which means more cost.

A more sophisticated approach to return to work

In response, industries that are reliant on a strong employee base are pulling out all the stops to retain the employees they already have. Reviewing, updating and, if necessary, enhancing return to work policies and vocational rehab services is one way to be sure you can sustain employment.

Because good employees are so valuable, we see more employers open to new return to work strategies and innovative approaches — allowing for longer limited duty, for example, and working to make a number of accommodations they might not have considered possible a short time ago.

This new sophistication about what it takes to have an effective voc rehab program means that partners who recognize and respect today’s workforce are vital. For example, it’s incumbent on whoever renders return to work and voc rehab services to ensure they have conducted assessments upfront, ensuring that only those services which will bring a particular claim forward are implemented.

Addressing common misperceptions around vocational rehabilitation

There are certain myths that — especially if they influence programs and processes — could hinder your ability to create effective and meaningful return to work outcomes and programs.

As I talk to employers, claims managers and others in our industry, these are just some common misconceptions I still hear:

  • Voc rehab programs are essential, but it’s hard to identify value and specific ROI.
  • For a return to work program to succeed, an employee must return to full-time employment as soon as possible.
  • You don’t need to spend a lot of time on voc rehab. Just alert your claims manager and they’ll handle it.
  • It’s impossible to have a good voc rehab program if the employee is working from home.

 When it comes to creating and implementing effective voc rehab services and return to work programs — and overcoming the entrenched myths that could get in your way — there are a few key steps to consider.

  • Adapt to the needs of today’s employees. Many are younger and follow the work-to-live motto. They want to be back on the job but also want to make sure programs are tailored to their needs. Nothing is cookie-cutter for employees today.
  • Consider your return to work programs as living, breathing organisms. They need to be nimble, flexible and constantly evolving to identify and resolve new pain points.
  • Make the magic happen. Look for strategies and partners to help you resolve claims effectively and efficiently. Let them remove some of the burdens on your claims manager when developing and implementing innovative ideas.
  • Avoid unnecessary fear about cost. Voc rehab programs don’t require a separate budget and don’t have to be costly. We structure our programs so they can be billed directly to the claim.
  • Recognize that working from home and participating in voc rehab are not mutually exclusive. It does — and will! — work, as long as you have a strong claims management partner who understands what that injured worker needs.

Another recommendation I like to share is to ensure your programs emphasize transferable skills. For example, a bank teller who injures a knee or back on the job may no longer be able to stand on their feet for long periods of time. However, that teller could transfer her specific skill set and aptitude — like attention to detail and the ability to key data in quickly and accurately — into a new role as a medical bill processor or financial payroll analyst.

If limited duty is not available or there are limitations due to labor agreements, we also recommend looking for transitional work for injured workers with non-profits. Ask your TPA or managed care partner to participate in the conversation about options and to take responsibility for your ROI and outcomes.

The bottom line

Vocational rehabilitation programs are crucial for employers today. Custom programs built on innovative voc rehab strategies can reduce indemnity costs and lower expenses by almost 60 percent. They can also reduce long-term disability costs, improve employee morale and increase overall productivity.

Successful voc rehab and return to work programs require knowledge, experience and commitment. Look for partners with expertise who can explore and embrace unconventional thinking, recognize the needs of today’s workers, and do all that is possible to guide your programs to success.

Written by:

Lori Newhouse, M.Ed., CRC, CCM

Vice President, Clinical Operations for Careworks

June 5, 2024