Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Return to Work helps staff find transitional work during recovery

Returning to work after an extended illness or injury can be challenging, but U-M staff members who have come back to work in transitional assignments say that the program fostered new skills and helped the healing process.


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The RTW program benefits the department, too

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The Return to Work program

For Dan Waters, a mason, returning to work in a transitional assignment following surgery yielded new computing skills. For Molly Beebe, a registered nurse, and Lynne Frank, a respiratory therapist, both of whom were accustomed to working with pediatric patients, coming back to work as patient care attendants provided an opportunity to sensitively interact with adult, teen and elderly patients.

Return to Work (RTW), a partnership involving Health System Human Resources, University Human Resources and WorkConnections, provides an integrated, supportive and coordinated approach to help employees safely return to work following illness or injury.

Plant Operations, Operations and Support Services, and Nursing Services piloted the RTW program from January 2010 through December 2011. At the end of the first year, there was a 37 percent average increase in productive work days, and a 28 percent average increase in the number of employees returning to work with restrictions.

During that period, the program helped staff members get back to work that they could do in paid transitional assignments, either in their home department or in alternate departments. Returning to work, despite restrictions, allowed those staff members to make valued contributions to the university even during recovery.

As a mason in Construction Services, Dan Waters typically works with brick, block, stone and tile. The materials are heavy and the physical demands of the job — lifting, bending, repetition, wear and tear on the arms, hands and knees — can exact a hard toll. Waters says he's been in and out of a variety of transitional assignments following knee surgery, a subsequent operation to repair a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, and, most recently, surgery on both hands for carpal tunnel syndrome.

"I moved around quite a bit to different assignments," Waters says. "I got to learn how other departments run, and gained computer skills. It was a lot easier on my body to work back into things slowly. My department managers wanted me to come back to work, but didn't force me to come back (to my regular job) before I was able to."

Waters says that coming back to work in a transitional assignment takes staff members out of their comfort zone but offers an opportunity to acquire new skills.

"You're put into departments where you might not feel comfortable at first, but the departments don't expect you to know everything all at once. In each assignment, the people in the department have been patient and helpful," he says.

Molly Beebe, a registered nurse who works with pediatric heart patients, has had two transitional work assignments following serious illnesses approximately one year apart.

She calls Return to Work "a wonderful program" and credits WorkConnections for facilitating the contact with the RTW coordinator in the Health System who helped her find transitional work as a patient care attendant, working with patients who require bedside supervision.

Beebe says that working in a transitional job helped her to recover faster, "because I was moving more with the activities of daily living and gaining stamina as a result. I also learned a lot because I sit with adult patients and I'm a pediatric nurse. I learned so much about elderly patients and psychiatric patients, and if I could bring a little bit of pleasure to their lives, that was nice."

"Coming back to work following a serious illness is a big deal," Beebe says. "But getting out of the house after being sick for months was wonderful. It brings you back into the world."

Lynne Frank, a registered respiratory therapist who works with critically ill infants, was referred to RTW by WorkConnections after knee surgery with post-operative restrictions that required little standing or walking.

As a respiratory therapist, she was accustomed to being on her feet for up to 12 hours at a time, often racking up to five miles on her pedometer in a single shift. She, too, was given a transitional assignment as a Patient Care Attendant, a job that, in just three short weeks, she has found to be enlightening.

"As a health care professional and someone who has herself been a patient, I've learned that being sensitive to other people's needs is part of what helps healing. Being involved with other people, having interactions with people from all walks of life … you learn from them. I've learned what it's like to walk in their shoes. When you help people get the care they need, you can really make a difference."

"Having an injury or a physical disability that you're recovering from in a transitional assignment you can recover faster. It's motivational, you're back to helping people, and that puts your spirit in a good place and helps your healing process," she says.

Dr. Robert Winfield, U-M's chief health officer, is an advocate of the benefits of early return to work.

"Returning to work as soon as someone is able is tremendously important for the employee," says Winfield. "It benefits them in a more rapid physical and psychological recovery, it helps their co-workers by contributing their skills, knowledge, and experience to the workplace, and it helps the employee in conserving their valuable illness benefits for the future."

The Return to Work program now is available campuswide and is expanding in the Health System.