Vocational rehabilitation: how does it work

September 8, 2016

Vocational rehabilitation, or return to work planning, is a service the 3sHealth Disability Income Plan provides to help people navigate the difficult process of returning to work after an injury or illness.

Linda Wasmuth (pictured left), a Rehabilitation Services Specialist at 3sHealth with degrees in psychology and social work, has a genuine concern for anyone who has to be away from work due to illness or disability, as does her co-worker, Rehabilitation Specialist Shelley Nyland. Vocational rehabilitation services are available to employees in the healthcare system who have been approved for disability income benefits and have been referred by the 3sHealth adjudicator or by their employer for vocational assistance to help them return to work. Wasmuth has found it to be truly rewarding work.

"Vocational rehabilitation gives you a chance to see how resilient and amazing human beings can be when they are given the chance to succeed," she says. "These are often individuals that have had a traumatic life event in terms of an illness or injury. They’re scared, wondering if they can still do their job, or if their employer with have them back. They need a lot of support to get back to work successfully."

Wasmuth says the process begins when someone becomes unable to work and applies for disability income benefits.

"The employee fills out a form, the employer fills out a form, and the doctor also fills out a form. The case then goes to 3sHealth, to the attention of an adjudicator."

Once approved for disability income benefits, the client may go through a complete vocational assessment and their doctor contacted to gain clearance for a return-to-work program. The file is then passed along to one of the rehabilitation specialists at 3sHealth. Wasmuth emphasizes that patience is extremely important during vocational rehabilitation.

"Definitive research tells us if people return to work without support on a full-time basis right away, the chances of their success in this transition are significantly less than if they return to work gradually over time."

3sHealth sponsors two types of gradual return-to-work programs. The supernumerary return-to-work program allows employees to ease back in as an extra person shadowing another staff member who is working their regular shift. The employee continues to receive full disability plan benefits from 3sHealth. This gives the employee, the physician, and the employer the opportunity to work together to gradually reintroduce the employee back into the workplace. Wasmuth says they also have another option, which is an integrated earnings return-to-work program.

"The Integrated Program is geared more toward employees who are closer to returning to normal duties, but not quite there yet. One example would be a nurse who can handle working eight hours, but is not quite ready for a regular 12 hour shift yet. Under this program the employer and the disability program each pay part of the wages."

Both of these programs are available to employees working toward the goal of returning to their previous occupation or to an alternate placement.

Wasmuth has achieved success in a variety of situations over the years, including at the beginning of her career previous to 3sHealth, when her employer presented her and two other colleagues with an extremely challenging project.

"Forty employees were facing their two year change of definition and the resulting loss of benefits. We worked with the union and the employers and the clients and got 39 out of the 40 accommodated and back to work.”

But the rewards are just as special even when it’s a unique situation involving a single employee. Wasmuth remembers in her previous employment being involved with a case where there were multiple significant obstacles which had to be overcome.

"We worked with a lady who had only a grade four education and had lost use of both hands in a workplace accident. We helped her with voice activated software to get her grade 12 education. We got her assistance and she’s been working ever since as a teacher’s aide, it’s been about 10 years now."

Wasmuth and Nyland both find it very satisfying to share their expertise and experience in vocational rehabilitation with those in need of their services.

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