Opinion piece: New Royal Decree on the reintegration of employees is open to interpretation

“We still need to tread carefully”

How will your organisation be impacted by the new Royal Decree on the reintegration of employees on long-term absence due to illness? Are all aspects covered by the new legislation or has it been a futile exercise? Marie-Noëlle Schmickler, Medical Director and Director R&D at Mensura, shares her insights.

Minister of Social Affairs Maggie De Block and Minister for Employment Kris Peeters have developed a new Royal Decree aimed at facilitating the process of reintegrating employees on long-term absence. A timely measure, as the longer the absence continues, the less likely the employee will return to work. In addition, these employees often experience anxiety and a sense of insecurity at the thought of returning.

Employers at the helm?

The new Royal Decree is partly inspired by the Dutch model and aims to encourage employers to take more responsibility. Employers are required to draw up a reintegration plan in situations where the employee will be able to return to work – possibly with restrictions – in the short or medium term.

At the same time, employers are now able to initiate the reintegration process after the employee has been absent for four months or longer, or after having received a certificate from the treating physician confirming the employee's permanent incapacity to work. Together with the prevention advisor-occupational health physician, the advisory physician from the sickness and disability insurance fund, and (possibly) the treating physician, the options for reintegration will then be assessed.

Final decision lies with the employee

As an employer, you are required to draw up a reintegration plan in certain situations. Another significant change is the role of the advisory physician from the sickness and disability insurance fund. He or she will now be assessing the options of a progressive return to work or confirm the employee’s incapacity to work and will be able to initiate the reintegration process autonomously.

When the recommendation from the prevention advisor-occupational health physician and the decision made by the advisory physician have led to a concrete assessment, there are several scenarios in which the employer will be legally required to draw up a reintegration plan. If the employee’s incapacity to work is temporary, then the reintegration plan must be drawn up within 55 business days. If the employee’s incapacity to work is permanent but restricted work or other work duties can be carried out, then the employee will have one year to look for a suitable position. However, the final decision is always up to the employee. If he or she rejects the reintegration plan, then the reintegration process is ended.

Blind spots

Overall, it seems like a very balanced approach, sharing responsibilities among all relevant parties and giving each one of them more input. However, the Royal Decree – as it currently stands – also leads to disagreement and varying interpretations.

Let’s look at the way the Royal Decree’s objective is defined. It is aimed at ‘facilitating the reintegration of employees who are temporarily or permanently unable to carry out the agreed duties’. But how exactly should the phrase ‘agreed duties’ be interpreted? Does it refer to the de facto duties carried out by the employee, or to what is stipulated in the employee’s employment agreement?

And what about funding? It seems logical to assume that employers should bear the expense when they are the ones initiating the reintegration process. But who is to pay if the reintegration process is initiated by the advisory physician or the employee? The Royal Decree currently provides no clear-cut answer to this. 

In other words, drawing up a reintegration plan that works for both the employer and the employee still requires a careful approach. As an external department for prevention and protection in the workplace, Mensura believes it is our responsibility to help employers reduce the prevalence of long-term absenteeism among employees and to safeguard the health and well-being of their employees at the same time. A collective approach, embedded in an effective policy on absenteeism, is absolutely essential.