Canadian Association for Supported Employment

Return to Work

Please Note

Employers: before implementing any policies, please read our Introduction and Key Considerations.

Inclusive Return to Work: What does it mean?

  • Sometimes, an employee must be away from the workplace for a disability-related reason. The employer or a designated supervisor and the employee work together to create and implement a plan to best support the employee in returning to the workplace. This plan might be coordinated with an applicable workers compensation agency, human resources and/or union representative.

  • A return-to-work plan should aim to 1) return the employee to the position they held prior to their absence, 2) identify potential barriers and determine solutions to address them, and 3) clearly communicate agreed upon timelines and a plan for accommodations, if required.

  • Any distinct changes that have occurred during the employee’s absence that could impact their return should also be discussed. A plan could be created to mitigate this impact, for instance changes in their department.

Why is it important?

  • While prolonged absence from the workplace can have a detrimental impact on any employee’s mental, physical and social well-being, it’s a common myth that people who experience disability are unable to perform well at work when returning from an absence. On the contrary, an effective return-to-work plan that includes employee input can play a pivotal role in supporting a successful re-integration into the workplace.

  • Effective return-to-work plans support employers in retaining talented and competent employees.

  • Absenteeism due to illness or disability is costly to an organization through the cost of benefit payments and lost productivity. Promoting the early and sustainable return to work of employees who experience disability can help reduce those costs.

  • An employer with an inclusive and accessible workplace will be better prepared and equipped to implement a return-to-work plan and an accommodation plan, if needed.

Sample Return to Work Policy

The following policy sample should be part of a larger return to work policy. This larger policy should also address any legislatively mandated return to work requirements in your jurisdiction, the purpose of the policy, the scope of the policy’s application, who is responsible for administering which parts of the policy, and the procedures that must be followed under the policy.

<Name of Organization> has a return to work process for employees who are unable to perform any or all of their normal duties as a consequence of an injury or illness. The return to work process begins immediately after the injury or illness occurs.

<Name of Organization> will work in collaboration with the injured or ill employee to identify alternate or modified work that is both productive and safe. It is expected that all employees will cooperate fully in facilitating the timely return to work and accept alternate or modified work that is within their skills and abilities.

Any personal medical information will be held in the strictest confidence.

Putting it into Practice

  • Contact with the employee should be seen as a caring gesture, not as a push to return to work.

  • In general, employees who return to work after an absence covered by the local labour code or employment standards legislation have the right to return to their jobs or a similar job, subject to undue hardship or other limitations provided by local laws. This right will often require that the employee only be replaced on a temporary basis and that the position be held until the employee returns. Where the employee is replaced permanently and is denied an opportunity to return to work, the employer will be at a greatly increased risk of being seen as not having met the duty to accommodate and may be in violation of applicable employment standards legislation.

  • To ease an employee’s transition back to work, open communication about their needs and expectations is critical to success. To prepare, it is helpful for employers to stay in touch with the employee while they are off work. Maintaining contact helps the organization understand the person’s progress and potential needs and contributes to a successful return to work. When doing so, remember to be patient and respectful.

  • It’s helpful to develop a written return-to-work plan in collaboration with the employee and with any relevant care professionals and insurers. The plan will clarify the employee’s needs and expectations and provide a document that can be referred to and updated as circumstances change. Factors to consider in a return-to-work plan include (as needed):
    • flexibility for scheduling medical and/or other appointments,
    • a gradual increase in work hours,
    • reduced workload, and
    • reasonable accommodations in line with the limitations outlined by the employee and care professionals and that will not cause undue burden to the employer.

Additional Considerations

(Provincial differences and unionized workplace considerations)
  • A written Return to Work program may not be a legal requirement in some jurisdictions for employers with fewer than 50 employees (though you should review your local accessibility laws or obtain legal advice). However, some group benefit plans will require that a Return to Work program be in place.

  • All employers have a duty to work with employees who are coming back from work after an injury. This requirement also applies if the reason that the employee is off work is due to disability or anything health related, not just in the advent of injury.

  • If a company is unionized or has a worker/employee association, support for the employee’s return to work program should be formalized and authorized by the appropriate level of union authority.


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