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Focusing return-to-work policies to recognize older worker needs crucial


Communication is key for employers who want to help aging employees recover from workplace injuries and return to work sooner, sources say.

Experts at such companies as Lockton Cos. L.L.C. and Liberty Mutual Group Inc. advise clients to talk often with older workers who have been hurt on the job, and let them know that their contributions to the workplace are missed.

By reaching out to such employees, companies can help reduce workers compensation claim costs and retain experienced staff members.

“We want to help our clients send the message that, ‘we want you at work because you're going to heal better when you're at work,'” said Beth Wood, Kansas City, Mo.-based vp and claims cost control consultant with Lockton.

Workers age 55 and older often have spent years or decades with their current employers, and have a “strong workplace attachment factor” to their jobs, said Wayne Maynard, Hopkinton, Mass.-based manager of technical services and product development for Liberty Mutual's Loss Control Advisory Services unit.

Workers who feel their employers are invested in their health could be more likely to strive for a faster recovery, Mr. Maynard said. However, employees who feel they aren't missed may see slower return-to-work times.

“If they…feel that the company just doesn't show interest in them coming back, then they may not come back,” Mr. Maynard said.

Return-to-work policies that focus on aging workers are critical in helping companies reduce rising workers comp claim costs, experts say.

Workers over age 55 spend 15 days out of the office during the average indemnity claim, compared with one day for younger employees, Ms. Wood said.

While older workers are hurt less frequently on the job than their younger colleagues, their workplace injuries tend to be more severe, according to a recent study from Boca Raton, Fla.-based NCCI Holdings Inc. Older workers also have higher indemnity costs, the study said, because they receive higher wages than younger employees.

Helping older workers return to their jobs has been a growing concern for companies that want to retain employees who are skilled and loyal, said Kim Lukanic, Chicago-based return-to-work practice lead for Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc.

“They've done the same job for 30 years, they've got a great dedication to their company, and all of the sudden they're injured and they don't necessarily have a lot of residual functional capacity as far as other jobs they can do,” Ms. Lukanic said.

Mr. Maynard recommends that direct supervisors maintain communication with employees who are out on leave. Phone calls, cards or other messages can help workers feel that team members care about their recovery, he said.

“Don't leave them out there,” he said.

Ms. Wood of Lockton says companies should strive to create a healthy corporate culture that makes employees look forward to returning. Supervisors also should let workers know that they can ease into their jobs as they recover from injuries, she said.

“If you can't do 100% of your job, that's OK, we still need you,” Ms. Wood said of the message companies should send to injured employees.


Companies can modify their return-to-work programs in additional ways to help speed recovery for aging workers, sources say.

Recovering employees should be assigned to transitional tasks that allow them to perform as much of their usual work as possible, said Colleen Britz, ergonomics practice leader of workforce strategies for Marsh Risk Consulting in Los Angeles.

Workers who have been off the job can lose work-related muscle conditioning, making it more difficult for them to heal from injuries, she said. This can be particularly true for older workers, because people tend to lose strength as they age.

By having employees continue a close-to-normal work routine—rather than performing menial tasks—employers can hasten workers' recovery time.

“You want them to do as many components of their job as possible from a productivity standpoint, and also so you don't have them deconditioning,” Ms. Britz said.

Liberty Mutual's Mr. Maynard said companies should create individualized return-to-work strategies for employees, which can include adjustments that help older employees transition back into their regular work.

“It might mean more or additional types of accommodations, like a more flexible work schedule or an adjustment to work pace,” Mr. Maynard said.

Employers also should inform co-workers about an injured employee's modified job duties, said Lance Perry, Keller, Texas-based senior ergonomist and engineer for Zurich Services Corp., a unit of Zurich North America.

By discussing a strategy with the team, companies can reduce potential negativity from employees who believe that the recovering worker isn't pulling his or her own weight, Mr. Perry said.

Additionally, he said companies should seek ergonomic solutions to help workers of all ages work during their recovery. That could mean providing specialized work tools for employees who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, or providing visual aids for workers who have suffered a hearing loss.

“It's critical not only to their safety, but everybody's safety,” Mr. Perry said.