Functional job descriptions: Why do you need them?

July 02, 2019 / Beth Burry – AVP, clinical ops, Sedgwick field case management and return to work

As every manager knows, job descriptions are a necessary tool to help match the most appropriate and qualified candidates to job postings, while weeding out ‘unqualified’ candidates. This means many job descriptions are written to exclude candidates in the application process and are not very useful for determining what the actual, functional components of a job are or when an injured worker can return to work.

Functional job descriptions are a crucial piece of an organization’s return to work program. Despite their usefulness for workers’ compensation, most employers either don’t have functional job descriptions or, if they do, they aren’t updated or easily accessed by claims examiners, return to work specialists and nurse case managers. This can lead to higher costs for employers as their injured employees stay out of work longer than necessary.

What is a functional job description?

Functional job descriptions include details of the physical demands required of a particular job as well as certain movements that workers may encounter on the job. An employer may think they have a functional job description when listing some physical requirements, such as the ability to lift 50 pounds, but that information alone is insufficient. Functional job descriptions go a step further than traditional job descriptions by noting a job’s actions and activities and breaking them down into categories. For example, including movements like bending, twisting, turning or climbing stairs and stating how often these activities are performed during a job make for a functional job description.

How are they used?

Without a functional job description, the treating provider can only rely on information provided by the injured worker or make assumptions to determine their return to work status. For instance, in the case of a painter who has been injured, the physician might assume that the job requires climbing ladders and continue to keep the worker off the job throughout their recovery. However, it may be possible for the painter to temporarily return to work by painting at eye level or lower, while coworkers handle the work requiring a ladder. 

Having access to a worker’s functional job description allows the return to work specialist, nurse case manager or claims examiner to help facilitate discussions with the provider and the employer regarding the functional abilities necessary for temporary light duty to be offered or for return to full duty to be approved.

Creating functional job descriptions

There are a number of ways that employers can create functional job descriptions.

The traditional way is for a return to work specialist to advise the client and discuss the physical job requirements over the phone. The specialist then develops a basic functional description, based upon the discussion with the client’s human resources department or supervisor.

Another approach is to have a certified ergonomist create the description. In this case, the ergonomist travels on-site to the employer. He or she uses tools and measuring devices to determine forces and frequency, and then incorporates those findings into the functional job description.

The last way for a functional job description to be created is to utilize advanced software that can easily analyze jobs. Software, such as MyAbilities, can capture cell phone video of an employee performing their job and analyze their activity using AI technology. This software also provides feedback regarding the physical requirements of a job and the frequency at which they are performed. This particular approach has proven to be highly accurate.

Functional job descriptions are an important component for employers to have as part of their return to work policy. They can make the difference in determining how long employees are off work and can help ensure employees get back to either temporary light duty or full duty as quickly and safely as possible.

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