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Supporting Employees Who Experience Unexpected Illness or Disability

On the surface, small business ownership and the popular television drama Downton Abbey may not seem to have a lot in common. But, on a deeper level, they do — because the early 20th century English country estate around which the show revolves is a significant contributor to its local economy, through both commerce and employment.

In fact, as described in a recent DOL blog post, when it comes to supporting employees with acquired disabilities, the estate has encountered several scenarios to which today's employers may relate. That's because when an unexpected injury or illness prevents an experienced, valued employee from working temporarily, small businesses can face difficult choices. Most want to do their best to support their employees, and the reality is that training new workers costs in terms of both time and money. At the same time, the work must go on.

Fortunately, employers — whether fictitious or real — can use a number of strategies to help employees remain on the job or get back to work following the onset of disability. Often, just a few simple modifications to an employee's work environment, duties or schedule are all that is needed to retain a valuable member of the team, often with the added benefit of decreasing workers' compensation costs and health-related absences.

To assist employers in understanding their options when it comes to such "stay at work" and "return to work" strategies, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy offers a range of resources, including fact sheets, research reports and issue briefs, as well as an online toolkit for employees and employers. Further information on structured return-to-work programs, including research validating their benefits and steps to implementing them, is available from ODEP's Job Accommodation Network and Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion.

Regardless of whether there is a structured program in place, the key to returning employees with disabilities to work as soon as possible often involves employers and employees remaining positive and keeping an open mind about available options. Effective communication is paramount. What's more, in many instances, work itself can play an important role in the recovery process — benefiting employee and employer alike for years to come.

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