by Andrea Buhl
Return to work is important at any time, but during the COVID-19 pandemic it is taking on a new dimension – what should be included in a return to work plan as we return to work? These unique circumstances have taught us all to rethink how we care for our workforces and protect the health of employees and customers. As many business owners and employees tread carefully into reopening and resuming operations, they also recognize that COVID-19 is still with us. It's important to address prevention and protection measures at the workplace in order to build and execute a purposeful back to business strategy.
The impact on workers' compensation
COVID-19 has affected all aspects of our lives and workers' compensation is no exception, with return to work becoming a particular challenge. Whether for existing injury claims or coronavirus exposure claims, the way we address return to work has changed as we continue to adapt to a pandemic work environment. For example, return to work and vocational specialists are interacting with employees virtually in order to comply with social distancing guidelines. They're addressing concerns regarding return to work dates and progression from modified duty off-site placements to full duty. They're continuing to follow up with provider offices regarding return to work strategies. Return to work and vocational specialists may also have to address modifications and accommodations in a new post-COVID-19 environment.
Finding new opportunities for temporary modified duty off-site placements
With many employers forced to shut down offices or furlough or lay off employees, one of the biggest challenges can be finding job placement opportunities, especially if an employee needs temporary modified duty. Thinking outside the box can help uncover transferrable skills and new job tasks that meet the changing needs during the pandemic. Employers may be able to assign returning employees a role that helps modify the workplace to meet more stringent safety measures. This may include sanitizing the work environment; using different tools and equipment; initiating or monitoring social distancing measures or health tracking; or ordering and issuing personal protective equipment (PPE). Another option is to assign returning employees to transitional work placements at not-for-profit organizations in the community. Although many of these organizations are still adhering to stay-at-home orders or reducing hours to limit interactions, there may be remote opportunities to work with or otherwise support the populations that they serve.
Reconditioning to prevent re-injury
In cases where a previously injured employee had been released for work, but the employer was unable to bring them back due to the pandemic, employees may require reconditioning before returning to work. This is especially the case if the employee has been out of physical or occupational therapy for a while due to stay-at-home orders. When possible, virtual tele-PT appointments may be an option, allowing the injured employee to continue with their recovery while social distancing. In situations where we would normally have attempted to get an employee back to work through modified duty, employers can provide a home exercise program and check in remotely. This can help reduce the potential for injury or reinjury once they are back to work, especially for jobs that include manual labor. Ergonomic evaluation or job analysis may be needed to support the employee's return to work by addressing new physical demands in the work environment due to pandemic-related safety measures.
Even for uninjured employees who have been out of their typical routines, deconditioning is an issue to address as a way to avoid injury as people get back into active work. Particularly for heavy labor-focused roles, fit for work programs that incorporate injury prevention strategies, on-site industrial rehabilitation and return to work options can help these individuals get back to business ready, physically and psychologically.
Leveraging technology and creative solutions
When onsite access to an employer's location is not possible, vocational specialists have to get creative to provide support. Using a secure video chat interface can help a vocational specialist provide virtual job coaching or evaluate the worksite for modified duty recommendations. Vocational specialists can use these video interfaces to chat with the employee and employer, view the job site, take measurements and take photos or video for documentation purposes. If those options don't work for your organization, there is also the option for vocational specialists to develop plans through onsite visits using appropriate social distancing measures, PPE…or even looking through an open door or window to provide job coaching assistance from an appropriate distance.
Addressing fear and anxiety
Barriers like fear and anxiety can certainly impact an employee's readiness to return to work in “normal” circumstances. During a pandemic, these feelings can be even more pronounced as employees may be concerned about their risk of exposure in the workplace. Referral to a behavioral health expert can help alleviate these fears and provide the education and support needed to face these new challenges in the workplace. If an employee has concerns (i.e., comorbid conditions, taking care of family members) about returning to work during the pandemic, some employers may allow for a period of leave or other accommodations. However, psychosocial challenges that are introduced or heightened by the pandemic can continue to impact the employee's outlook. Having a plan to address these challenges through behavioral health intervention can be the key in helping employees feel less anxious about their return to work.
During a pandemic, returning to work safely and in a timely matter requires additional steps. Whether the employee is returning to work in a temporary modified duty position or directly into full duty, it's important to ensure that they have not been exposed to, or show symptoms of COVID-19. Incorporating health questionnaires and temperature checks in accordance with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines can help safely return an employee to work.
Health questionnaires: While health questionnaires are critical in cases where an employee was exposed, symptomatic or confirmed to have COVID-19, they are also useful for employees that have been out of work due to an injury. Questionnaires can help confirm these individuals weren't exposed while off work, potentially introducing the disease to the workplace upon their return.
Temperature screenings: Temperature screenings are widely being used at healthcare facilities, manufacturing facilities, distribution centers and warehouse operations where large groups of people are entering or exiting shift assignments. These are also now prevalent at smaller-scale operations as part of widespread practices and protocols being implemented to provide reassurance that measures are being taken to keep employees and customers safe. Nurses may be stationed at a facility to provide temperature checks onsite as employees arrive for work. Having a trained clinician onsite is an effective way to assess and communicate a proper course for action while quickly isolating and preventing the possible spread of the virus. Another way to provide temperature screenings is to secure virtual temperature checks and support. In these instances, single use thermometers are obtained by facilities and a nurse or clinician is available to assist with readings and follow-up care. This can be a particularly helpful option for businesses with remote locations.
Employer strategies for a pandemic work environment
With stay-at-home guidelines expiring or relaxing, businesses are starting to open back up. These additional strategies and recommendations can help you prepare your work environment:
Re-work production lines and floor layouts to accommodate social distancing
Use remote capabilities to video an individual performing a job and virtually make modifications specific to the employee
Increase or stagger shifts and consider modifying work environments to combine two job functions into one for positions in which two workers historically had to be in close proximity to each other
Modify work environments and roles to silo workers on specific equipment or tools for longer periods of time to avoid contact with multiple workers
While the pandemic has certainly introduced new challenges for those returning to work, creative thinking and the use of the latest technology can help us find solutions. Employers who are willing to work closely with return to work, vocational and behavioral health specialists can safely get employees back to work and return to productivity as quickly as possible.
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