A graying workforce and the broad recognition of the staggering cost of employee absence—more than $200 billion per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—are causing many forward-looking companies to evolve return-to-work programs into stay-at-work initiatives.

Return-to-work programs are widely credited with helping employers better manage total workers compensation and disability costs by effectively bringing injured or disabled workers back to work. Now, companies are taking the best practices of these programs and applying them to help workers suffering from chronic pain and other ailments stay at work and be productive.

At the same time, some companies are leveling historic silos. Instead of having one program for work-related injuries and another for short- and long-term disability, they are building a single initiative that covers the top reasons employees are away from work.

By working with employees to accommodate their physical needs, regardless of what caused them to be away from work, the reasoning goes, employers will keep good workers, reduce sick leave, avoid higher workers compensation and disability costs, and help boost employee morale.

Even before a 2010 law required employers to provide nursing mothers a place to express milk during the workday, progressive employers were providing “mom’s rooms” to help them return to work sooner. That same principle now is being applied to other employees, and it is growing in importance given the impact on total absence costs from an aging workforce and growing problems of obesity, diabetes and related illnesses.

Liberty Mutual Insurance, which has done considerable work in this arena, is currently measuring the effectiveness of a pilot intervention program completed in 2011 that was designed to help employers establish effective stay-at-work programs for their workers.

“Stay-at-work is a tactic that helps employers keep quality people on the job and maximize the impact of their current benefit programs,” says Paula Aznavoorian-Barry, vocational program manager for group benefits at Liberty Mutual. “Many employers are becoming more proactive and are looking at how they can keep their people working, recognizing that peoples’ needs change as they age. They want to keep their bench strength and maintain productivity.”

The concept is an evolution from the popular return-to-work programs that many firms have instituted to get injured employees back on the job.

Last year, Washington state instituted a stay-at-work program focused on workers comp. The state reimburses half the wages and some training and ancillary costs to employers that provide light-duty or transitional work for injured workers.

“The stay-at-work program is so important because it helps employers keep their valuable, experienced workers,” says Judy Schurke, director of the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. “And workers don’t lose income they would if they were off the job collecting partial wage-replacement benefits.”

Brokers and agents can help their clients establish effective stay-at-work programs. “That is a value-added service that can help employers reduce lost time and cost,” says Dr. Glenn Pransky, director of Liberty Mutual Research Institute’s Center for Disability Research.

Over the years, a growing number of workers report chronic diseases and other health issues that can reduce their longevity on the job and lower company productivity. Dr. Pransky, an occupational health physician, and his team of scientists launched a study six years ago to determine what workplace challenges employees face when they suffer from chronic pain and how best to keep them at work.

Results of the pilot program will be evaluated further in a longitudinal study. Once published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the results could spur many more employers to implement stay-at-work programs.

Dr. Pransky and Aznavoorian-Barry suggest these key ingredients for an effective stay-at-work program:

  • Match the worker to the job. Often, this becomes an issue with people who take post-retirement jobs for which they are not physically suited due to their age.
  • Wellness. It is never too late for people to change their behavior—to lose weight, stop smoking and exercise more.
  • Accommodation. If an employee has lost visual acuity, better lighting might help. Employees who have lost body strength need responsibilities that do not require strenuous activity. Work with them to accommodate their needs and retain their services, knowledge and expertise.
  • Disease management. How does the employee’s condition impact his or her job performance? What changes can be made to help the worker manage his or her condition and at the same time continue working?
  • Communication. “This is overarching, and it is critical,” says Aznavoorian-Barry. “All this is great stuff, but how it is communicated to employees is extremely important. We have studies that show that an open communications style is most successful.”

Agents, Dr. Pransky contends, can play an important role in helping their clients understand how stay-at-work programs can be beneficial to their companies and their employees. “We hope they will do that,” he says.