Work Connections: Supporting Recovery from Illness or Disability

Helping hands image

Recently relocated into new offices on the ground floor of Wolverine Tower, Work Connections is an employee-centered program designed to offer support and assistance to employees during their recovery from a disability.

Acting as a liaison between the employee and the department, the program preserves the confidentiality of the employee’s medical information and offers guidance to departments on medical issues.

A staff of 11 case managers, four nurses, and two physician consultants supports the program.

Kathleen (Kate) Rychlinski, assistant director of Risk Management, is the director of Work Connections. She came to U-M in 1987 to head up administration of U-M’s worker’s compensation claims.

Work Connections grew out of the perception that “there was really very little help available for our employees to help them  work through illness and recovery for illnesses or injuries that were not work related,” she says.

Work Connections began almost 20 years ago as a joint effort by many departments to partner in supporting employees during the course of their recovery.

 “Our role is to facilitate communication and serve as a resource,” says Kate. Managing disability can be difficult to navigate, she explains. Work Connections acts as a hub, connecting the various parts.

“We try to make the connections that simplify everything for the employee, the department and even the medical providers.”

If a medical leave of absence is an issue, Work Connections does not manage the medical leave, but can offer guidance to Human Resources about whether the medical leave is appropriate.

Work Connections also reaches out to match individuals with services, sometimes by helping to get appointments moved up or encouraging an employee to take advantage of services such as counseling. They also try to leverage resources to coordinate care by reaching out to insurers to resolve coverage issues, making arrangements for special equipment or lining up emergency resources.

“If we see indicators that long-term disability is likely, we can help lay the groundwork for a seamless transition by getting involved early in the process so that there’s less stress for the employee once sick time benefits are exhausted,” explains Kate.

Family members are also affected by an employee’s disability, she says. Work Connections helps family members care for the employee by offering guidance or by going to a doctor’s appointment with them to help them speak with their physician about treatment options and recovery expectations.

Five things employees need to know about Work Connections:

  1. Work Connections is voluntary. Either an employee or a supervisor can request services.
  2. Work Connections services are confidential. Diagnoses are not shared with the employee’s department.
  3. Work Connections exists to assist and support employees. “There’s sometimes the notion that we’re the medical documentation police,” says Kate. “We really want to be seen as a helpful resource.”
  4. Work Connections does not take sides. “We’re neither the employee’s nor the university’s advocate,” says Kate. “We are very caring, but we don’t take a position. We look at whether a return to work is reasonable or not, whether an accommodated position is possible, or not. We’re a resource, not a decider. At the end of the day, it’s up to the employee and the department, whether an employee receives care or decides to return to work-- it’s not up to us.”
  5. Getting back to work quickly is good for you. “We know, without question, that the sooner an employee returns to work the better their recovery is going to be,” says Kate.

Why is Early Return to Work So Important?

“There’s a negative cycle that sets in when someone is off from work too long,” says Kate. “Their pain is worse, they suffer from isolation. Work Connections tries to facilitate getting people back to work and keep them engaged as soon as it’s safe for them to do so.”

That might require returning to work in a position with accommodations for a temporary disability--such as a job where the employee is sitting down following an ankle injury, for example. But sometimes Work Connections will talk to a patient’s doctor and ask if there are alternatives to a recommended period of recovery if accommodations can be made for restrictions such as lifting or walking.

Kate sees returning to work after an illness or injury as a win/win. Ultimately, she says, both sides want the same thing: the employee wants to recover as quickly as possible and the supervisor wants the employee back.

For its part, Work Connections wants to be a support system to everyone who is involved: the employee, the family, the medical providers, the department and Human Resources.

For more information about Work Connections visit their website or call (734) 615-0643.