Americans are taught from a very young age that working and holding a job is morally prudent to “taking care of one’s self” at all costs. Graduation from high school is a societal initiation followed by every parents’ dream their children will attend college, become doctors and lawyers, graduate with honors and make them proud. In fact, most parents these days beg, borrow and do without financially to save money enough to send their children to college.
Americans live, breathe, and psychologically become what they choose to do for a living. Our looking-glass self is often associated with accomplishments and achievements through work and higher education. Those who do not excel are often made to feel “left behind”, unworthy and useless by our culture. As Americans we function well when employed and able to work, but we don’t function at all as individuals when unable to work due to an unforeseen disability.
Due in part to our notions of self-worth associated with productive work, disabled insureds remain optimistic about their future ability to “go back to work.” Nearly every insured and claimant who contacted me in the last nine years expressed a desire to return to work in some capacity even when the likelihood of doing so was medically uncertain.
Working is healthy and this consultant is of the opinion that if an insured can work, he or she should work. Not working in a culture which condemns the unemployable either through age, gender, class, educational achievement, or disability discrimination is hurtful to self – ask any person currently on claim.
However, returning to work after an extended period of disability is more difficult than just being “capable of doing a job.” Everyone tells me, “Linda, I just want to be able to go back to work”, or “I want to feel useful and productive again and find another job.” Optimism concerning a return to work is one thing; actually performing job tasks is another issue entirely.
Here are a few things to think about before making any hasty decision to attempt to return to work:
Consider “working” is more than just doing a job. Most insureds think about their former occupations in terms of the skills needed to actually work in a profession or for a specific employer. Returning to work after a period of disability is a total commitment by an insured to “be somewhere, on time everyday”, and be able to perform the job the way the employer expects it to be performed on a reliable and consistent basis. Some insureds might be able to return to work and do well for a month, but after that? “Returning to work” means setting the alarm clock and getting up at a certain time everyday, commuting to a specific location, getting along with co-workers, performing job tasks, and being able to work extra hours if required. Working requires the ability to maintain a routine which is mentally and physically demanding over time.
Consider Voluntary Activity or a Work-Hardening Program first. Before returning to full-time work insureds and claimants should consider volunteer work on a regular basis, or participation in a work-hardening program. Most state rehabilitative agencies can provide information about “work-hardening programs.” Such a program will allow the insured to begin working minimal hours per week and then gradually increase hours worked until full-time is reached. Work-hardening programs allow insureds to actually determine their realistic work ability before accepting a job. Volunteer activities can be managed to do the same thing. The point is for the insured to actually have to be somewhere on a daily basis, performing jobs, to determine actual work capacity and endurance.
Physician buy-in to return to work. Insureds who have not considered the “sustainable and consistent” aspects of working are often dedicated into “talking physicians” into giving a medical release to return to work, and yes, I have encountered situations where insureds literally “talk their physicians into returning them to work” even when it is doubtful they won’t be able to work long. Insureds and claimants should always ask for their physicians’ opinions concerning work and whether or not realistically they will be able to sustain work long-term. If the physician “says no” it’s best not to try to go back to work, or talk him into saying “yes.”
Check your policy. Most ERISA employer group policies contain financial incentives to return to work. It’s very important to read your policy and clearly understand how you will be paid if you return to work less than full-time. Social Security also allows a period of return to work within certain monetary guidelines. Please be aware of what your policy says concerning a return to work full-time, including the “recurrent provision” and “residual” or part-time disability. When insureds return to work part-time they may still be able to receive disability benefits AND earnings and/or SSDI.
The important thing to remember about returning to work after a period of disability is that you will want to make sure you can remain at work long-term. Accepting the commitment of a full-time job shouldn’t be a “trial” to see if you can do it. Taking days off, leaving work early, using PTO days, expecting work accommodations, or not performing up to standard should not become part of a return to work attempt.
On those occasions when insureds and claimants return to work prematurely with a new employer it is likely pre-existing conditions for the first 12 months will prevent receiving benefits under a new LTD group policy. Insureds who cannot endure the rigors of the new job will not qualify for benefits under any new LTD policy with 12-month pre-existing condition provisions.
And, of course, insurance companies “push and encourage” insureds to go back to work whether they are able to sustain it or not. Insureds should never make premature return to work decisions because of persuasion, threats of termination of claim, or offer of “rehabilitation programs” by an insurance company. Insureds should only return to work when there has been sufficient evidence of recovery and endurance suggesting a long-term commitment to work will be successful.
Working is healthy, both mentally and physically. Those insureds and claimants who can work, should work. However, returning to work prematurely, and not being able to remain at work isn’t the best situation either.
Those who have been out on disability for several months should explore and take advantage of local work hardening programs to determine realistic work capacity prior to attempting any return to work. Returning to work is a great idea but only if you can realistically remain at the job long-term.