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Week of June 24, 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.

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 between 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.”

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.

“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 following 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 which, 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.”

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,” Winfield says. “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.”

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