Early Return to Work: A Key to Successful Vocational Rehabilitation

07 Feb, 2024 Claire Muselman


Hartford, CT (WorkersCompensation.com) -- During the 20th Annual Workers Compensation Insurance ExecuSummit, Kerry A. Skillin, CRC, LPC, ABVE/D of CRC Services, LLC, presented the importance of early return to work in the vocational rehabilitation process. As an expert in vocational rehabilitation, Skillin highlighted the benefits of early return to work for injured workers in their recovery and reintegration into the workforce. She explained how early RTW helps physical and psychological healing and is crucial in preserving the injured worker's sense of purpose and identity.

The Evolution of Vocational Rehabilitation

During her presentation, Skillin provided a detailed overview of the evolution of vocational rehabilitation, which began with the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. This Act marked the start of formalized efforts to provide vocational education for displaced industrial workers and set the stage for future vocational rehabilitation initiatives. She then discussed significant milestones, such as the Soldiers’ Rehabilitation Act of 1928, which extended vocational rehabilitation services to World War I veterans. This milestone reflected a growing recognition of the need to support those with service-related disabilities. The Smith-Fess Act of 1920 was another significant development that Skillin highlighted, which authorized vocational guidance, occupational adjustment, and placement services for civilians with physical disabilities. She concluded this historical overview by discussing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which introduced the Individualized Written Rehabilitation Plan (IWRP) and post-employment services, further solidifying the commitment to providing comprehensive vocational rehabilitation services.

The Importance of Early RTW

Skillin emphasized that injured workers who do not return to their pre-injury wages within a year face significant long-term challenges. These workers have a notably reduced likelihood of returning to their previous wage levels even after three years. This data underscores the prolonged financial and professional impact of injuries on workers. Her analysis highlights the necessity of effective early return-to-work strategies for physical and psychological rehabilitation. Early return-to-work strategies ensure financial stability and career continuity for injured workers, emphasizing the importance of timely intervention to avoid prolonged adverse effects on their vocational prospects and overall quality of life.

Vocational Rehabilitation Goals and Hierarchy

Skillin outlined the return-to-work hierarchy, a structured process at the center of vocational rehabilitation goals. The hierarchy starts with the best-case scenario of an injured worker returning to the same employer and job with minimal disruption to their professional life. However, suppose such a return is not possible due to the nature or severity of the injury. In that case, the next preferred option is for the worker to return to the same employer but in a different role. As one moves down the hierarchy, options like on-the-job training, skill enhancement through short-term programs, and even full retraining become necessary. Skillin highlighted an essential point: with each step down in the hierarchy, the time the worker remains out of employment increases, as do the associated costs - both in terms of lost wages for the worker and rehabilitation and compensation costs for the employer and insurance systems. As explained by Skillin, this framework underlines the importance of early and appropriate interventions to ensure the most favorable outcome for the injured worker.

The Role of the Rehabilitation Team

Collaborative effort is required for successful vocational rehabilitation. This effort involves key players like the injured worker, the attorney, the insurance adjuster, the employer, treatment providers, family members, and the vocational rehabilitation specialist. The attorney ensures legal protection, the insurance adjuster coordinates resources, and employers provide support. Treatment providers address medical aspects, and family members offer emotional support. The vocational rehabilitation specialist oversees the customized plan and manages coordination, ensuring it meets specific requirements.

When to Refer for Vocational Rehabilitation

Skillin emphasized the importance of referring injured workers to vocational rehabilitation services immediately. This referral should be made as soon as it becomes apparent that the worker cannot return to their pre-injury job or that the worker will need accommodations to perform their duties. Early intervention is vital to ensure efficient and effective rehabilitation. An early return to work has multiple benefits, including reducing the overall costs associated with prolonged absence from work, boosting the injured worker's confidence in their recovery, and improving their mental health outcomes. An early return to work fosters a sense of purpose, maintains a routine, and provides social support, all essential for psychological well-being.

The Vocational Rehabilitation Process

The vocational rehabilitation process begins with an initial referral, followed by a thorough intake and assessment phase. This intake and assessment phase involves evaluating the individual's medical history, treatment, limitations, family support, and education. These assessments identify barriers to employment and readiness for return to work. Cognitive and psychological evaluations are crucial in understanding the individual's capabilities for a tailored return-to-work plan.

Skillin assesses mental health and coping skills as a vocational rehabilitation consultant, predictors of successful recovery. The consultant collaborates with the team to customize the rehabilitation plan. The journey concludes with job development and placement, aiming for independence in the injured worker's job search within 60-90 days, assessing readiness for a successful return to work.

Job Search Statistics and Placement Time Summary

Skillin presented compelling statistics highlighting the challenges injured workers face in the job market. On average, it takes about five months to secure a job, and applicants often must submit up to 80 applications. Corporate job openings receive an overwhelming average of 250 applications per position, making the competition fierce. Approximately 62% of job seekers secure one interview for every ten applications. Skillin emphasized that extended work gaps significantly reduce job callbacks, with a 9.8% callback rate for those with long gaps compared to 11.3% for those without—a three to five-year gap, resulting in only a 4.6% chance of interviews or callbacks. She emphasized that early intervention and RTW with the same employer can significantly improve the IW’s chances of successful placement.

Skillin concluded her presentation by quoting Malcolm Gladwell, emphasizing that fulfilling work is crucial for happiness between 9 and 5. She stressed that early return to work is beneficial for cost savings and recovery and for the injured worker's overall fulfillment and well-being.

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    • Claire Muselman

      Meet Dr. Claire C. Muselman, the Chief Operating Officer at WorkersCompensation.com, where she blends her vast academic insight and professional innovation with a uniquely positive energy. As the President of DCM, Dr. Muselman is renowned for her dynamic approach that reshapes and energizes the workers' compensation industry. Dr. Muselman's academic credentials are as remarkable as her professional achievements. Holding a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership from Grand Canyon University, she specializes in employee engagement, human behavior, and the science of leadership. Her diverse background in educational leadership, public policy, political science, and dance epitomizes a multifaceted approach to leadership and learning. At Drake University, Dr. Muselman excels as an Assistant Professor of Practice and Co-Director of the Master of Science in Leadership Program. Her passion for teaching and commitment to innovative pedagogy demonstrate her dedication to cultivating future leaders in management, leadership, and business strategy. In the industry, Dr. Muselman actively contributes as an Ambassador for the Alliance of Women in Workers’ Compensation and plays key roles in organizations such as Kids Chance of Iowa, WorkCompBlitz, and the Claims and Litigation Management Alliance, underscoring her leadership and advocacy in workers’ compensation. A highly sought-after speaker, Dr. Muselman inspires professionals with her engaging talks on leadership, self-development, and risk management. Her philosophy of empathetic and emotionally intelligent leadership is at the heart of her message, encouraging innovation and progressive change in the industry. "Empowerment is key to progress. By nurturing today's professionals with empathy and intelligence, we're crafting tomorrow's leaders." - Dr. Claire C. Muselman

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