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A new survey finds surprising similarity in employers' return-to-work programs regardless of whether employees sustained disabilities in occupational or non-occupational settings for employers that have programs for both settings.

Of the 75 employer respondents with both types of return-to-work programs, about three-fourths had very similar programs, according to a soon-to-be-released survey by the Integrated Benefits Institute, a research organization based in San Francisco.

"The most striking result of the IBI's comparison of. . .program features is their similarity," even though employers and employees traditionally believe it is inappropriate for an employer to get involved with an employee's non-occupational disability, according to a 25-page analysis of the survey.

The research organization based its conclusions on survey responses from 121 diverse, nationwide companies that had return-to-work programs for employees with occupational-related disabilities. About 63% of those respondents -- or 75 companies -- had both types of return-to-work programs, while about 73% of that group -- or 53 companies -- had very similar programs regardless of whether the injury was occupational or non-occupational, according to William P. Molmen, IBI's general counsel. He helped write the analysis along with two researchers.

Similar program features included modifying the employee's own job, finding alternative work, communicating return-to-work program information, describing essential job functions and using those descriptions to modify an employee's job.

In addition, "employers more experienced in return-to-work highly value active case management techniques such as assigning a case manager early and establishing a return-to-work coordinator," researchers found.

The survey also found that "development of return-to-work programs is recent and dynamic," with employers establishing at least 85% of the occupational and non-occupational programs after 1988.

"Typically, early return-to-work programs were established by large, union employers principally in the service and retail trade sectors," according to the analysis.

Mr. Molmen said he found it "fascinating" that "the very first programs combining occupational and non-occupational disability programs were sponsored by union employers."

That finding "sets to rest concerns about union responsiveness to such programs," at least for the participating employers, he said. However, it is not known what related trade-offs employers may have made in negotiations with unions to help accomplish this, he added.

In addition, recent growth in such return-to-work programs has broadened across industry sectors to include small and mid-size employers as well as non-union employees.

However, "many employers fail to collect critical metrics to measure results," the analysis found. For example, only half of the employers with non-occupational return-to-work programs collected data on lost days in those programs.

In addition, "few employers measure return-to-work program savings, despite corporate pressure to relate expenses to bottom-line results," the analysis found. "When they do, results are good," with savings of generally 40% of occupational disability costs and 23% of non-occupational disability payments, the analysis said.

IBI's work reflects the interests of its 65 members, 45% of whom are employers. Other IBI members include health maintenance organizations, brokers, consultants, third-party administrators as well as disability and workers compensation insurers.

For a copy of the survey, "Both Sides Now: Occupational and Non-Occupational Return-To-Work Programs," contact IBI at 415-222-7280. A single copy costs $50 printed or $40 by electronic mail.