Case Study: Mount Washington: Managing a Successful Return-to-Work Program

How one ski-resort operator helps staff stay productive after setbacks on the job.

Kate Dodd, Mount Washington

Not surprisingly, employees at a venue like Mount Washington Alpine Resort on Vancouver Island do occasionally get injured while working as patrollers or on other jobs that require them to ski for hours at a time. However, thanks to some innovative thinking, the resort has instituted a return-to-work program. Now, injured workers find that their self-esteem and income need not also take a downhill tumble while their bodies recover.

One of the program’s obvious benefits for an employer is the ability to retain that most valuable of business commodities: the trained employee. For the staff, staying in the workplace means maintaining seniority and company benefits, but there are also sound psychological reasons for such a program.

“The longer someone is off work, the greater the chance they will never return to work,” says Kate Dodd, the resort’s former Director of Finance and Human Resources. “With a return-to-work program in place, the logic is that we’re not doing people favours. If someone can do meaningful work while they recover, it’s good for everyone — a win-win situation.”

In co-ordination with the local WorkSafeBC office, Mount Washington’s program can keep injured workers busy with a less physically taxing job while a popped knee or sprained shoulder is on the mend. “It just makes sense,” says Dodd. “Most people want to come back to work, rather than sitting at home being an invalid. We’ve switched our attitude from ‘if you come back’ to ‘when you return to work.’ We call it our Stay at Work program.”

Owen Embree, Mount Washington

“In the past few years, we’ve come a long way,” says Owen Embree, former Human Resources and Safety Coordinator for Mount Washington. “There are challenges. This is a seasonal resort, so people injured late in the season were having a free ride over summer on our account. But now we’re more proactive and assign injured workers light duties that keep them feeling useful and are real jobs, not just busy-work.

“There is a certain point where people just won’t return to work,” says Embree. “We try to show them that we want them to come back. Some people see an injury as a badge of honour, and some will take advantage of an injury and take a year off at our expense. With this return-to-work program, it’s up to us to find appropriate work for an injured employee. Most people are happy to get back to work, to being useful and needed, rather than feel as if they are taking advantage.”

Chris Austin, Mount Washington

Chris Austin is Mount Washington’s Assistant Ski Patrol Supervisor as well as the resort’s Return to Work Coordinator. The program has been in place for the few years, he says, but requires fine-tuning to discover what works and what doesn’t. “Before we had this program, this was all left up to WorkSafeBC, and we would follow their lead,” says Austin. “Now we are more active.”

“Educating staff about what we offer is a big part of the program,” he says. “There are two types of people: those who don’t think they are hurt and those who think their injuries are worse than they are. By educating people about our program, the first type is not afraid to admit they are injured, while the second type can often be prevented from taking it too far.”

Austin recalls the case of an employee who was out skiing on a daily basis, assessing runs. “He twisted his knee very badly, tore his calf muscle, a fairly disabling injury. With the return-to-work program, he worked in the office for a few weeks, then spent some time operating a snowmobile, working on signage and so on. He was hurt in March, was able to work full-time at his summer job, and when he returned the next winter it began with light duties, and by March he was back to his full duties. Rather than losing him as an employee, with the return-to-work program we were able to keep him active and useful while he recovered. The program worked for all of us,” he says.