What are the health benefits of good return to work?

Risk Matters - Autumn 2023

Picture of Mereesha Gadigellan

Mereesha Gadigellan

LGIS Injury Management Consultant

Mereesha is a Senior Occupational Therapist with an extensive background in clinical rehabilitation, vocational rehabilitation and injury management. Mereesha provides professional injury management advice, support and education to LGIS Members. Support includes, but is not limited to, injury management advice, early intervention strategies, training and return to work guidance.

It’s been a challenging few years with the pandemic and trying to support injured workers return to work or return to an evolving workplace amidst changing rules, regulations and new hybrid working arrangements.

Despite these factors and the obstacles they pose, developing a return to work plan for injured workers should be a priority for employers. Resources such as the Health Benefits of Good Return to Work (2011), Good Work Design (2013) and the National Return to Work Strategy 2020 – 2030 by Safe Work Australia, provide a framework, which helps employers through any challenges posed in developing a good return to work.

As employers, you have a legal obligation under the Workers Compensation and Injury Management Act 1981 to support an injured worker to return to work and develop a structured return to work plan if medically appropriate. It is imperative to support workers return to work (RTW) as evidences show that the longer you are off work, the less likely you are to return to work.

Experience shows that if you are off work for:

  • 20 days – the chance of you getting back to work is 70%
  • 45 days – the chance of you getting back to work is 50%
  • 70 days – the chance of you getting back to work is 35%

This has significant implications from several perspectives like claims cost, business culture, work force capacity, policies and procedures.

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So why is it so important to have not just a return to work plan in place but also a good return to work plan?

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine launched a position statement in 2013, outlining the fundamental premise behind the question, ‘What is Good Work?’. They identified four domains of good work by design:

Good work by design:

  1. Engages workers and where necessary partners with workers and suppliers;
  2. Engages with the community culture that reflects the local, regional and operational contexts in which the work is performed;
  3. Respects procedural justice and relational fairness promotes civility and is intolerant of incivility, discrimination and bullying;
  4. Appropriately balances job demands, job control and job security and requires:

a. Aware managers, but not necessarily aware employees, who manage change effectively, focusing on mental and psychological wellbeing, security and life balance;

b. Clear and realistic performance indicators to guide and acknowledge the efforts of the worker;

c. Use of hard and transparent ‘people productivity metrics’; and

d. Matching ‘the work’ to the ‘individual’.

These domains of good work design have been built into the guiding principles by Safe Work Australia. The National Return to Work Strategy 2020- 2030 captures the following principles to support the strategic outcomes, and characterise a positive return to work outcome for workers.
  1. Workplaces support the early reporting of work related injury and illness, and assist workers to navigate the compensation claims process.
  2. Employers and supervisors appropriately and effectively prepare for, respond and manage work related injury and illness in the workplace.
  3. Workers know their rights and responsibilities and are supported to play a proactive and positive role in their own recovery and return to work.
  4. Support and intervention is tailored to meet the needs of workers and provided as early as possible.
  5. The return to work process should not exacerbate existing conditions or create new ones.
  6. Return to work programs and planning support optimal recovery and a timely and positive re-engagement in work that is productive for both the worker and employer.

  7. Workers return to physically and psychologically safe and supportive workplace.

  8.  Stakeholders understand, promote and embed the principles of ‘Good Work’ in practice, recognising that good work is good for health and supports recovery.

  9. Stakeholders share relevant information and engage in coordinated and collaborative approach to return to work.

  10. There is commitment to using data and evidence, measuring success and sharing learnings to drive innovation and continual improvement.

The development of ‘good return to work’ has noted the following health benefits:

  • Work is generally good for health and wellbeing.
  • Long term work absence, work disability and unemployment have a negative impact on health and wellbeing.
  • Work must be safe as far as is reasonably practicable.
  • Work is an effective means of reducing poverty and social exclusion, including that faced by indigenous populations and other currently disadvantaged groups. With appropriate support, many of those who have the potential to work, but are not currently working because of economic or social inequalities, illness or acquired or congenital disability, can access the benefits of work.
  • Work practices, workplace culture, work-life balance, injury management programs and relationships within workplaces are key determinants, not only of whether people feel valued and supported in their work roles, but also of individual health, wellbeing and productivity.
  • Individuals seeking to enter the workforce for the first time, seeking re-employment or attempting to return to work after a period of injury or illness, face a complex situation with many variables. Good outcomes are more likely when individuals understand the health benefits of work, and are empowered to take responsibility for their own situation.
  • Health professionals exert a significant influence on work absence and work disability, particularly in relation to medical sickness certification practices. This influence provides health professionals with many opportunities for patient advocacy, which includes, but is not limited to, recognition of the health benefits of work.

Key message

Although we are working within an evolving landscape, using the Good Work Design and Guiding Principles can support you in designing a good return to work program for an injured employee. It provides you with a framework for being agile and adaptable whilst reaping the numerous health benefits for employees. With healthy employees come many positive effects for your organisation, ranging from improved productivity, culture and work practices to positive claims experiences and improved claims costs.

To learn more:

A key part of WorkCover WA’s role is providing education and assistance to employers to support them with return to work and they have created extensive resources for employers.


LGIS injury management team provides regular training on return to work and is able to assist you with your return to work queries. Please contact [email protected] for queries or support.

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