Employers play vital role in injured workers in getting back to work

Risk Matters - Winter 2023

Managers and supervisors are key influencers when it comes to successfully getting an injured worker back to work.

Returning to work after a period of absence can be challenging for some people. These absences can be due to illness, psychosocial issues, injury at home, or a recreational injury. Some individuals will return to the workplace without any need for additional support; however for some, making the transition back to work can be very challenging.

At the moment it takes about 36 days for injured workers to return. We know that the longer a worker is away from work the less likely they are to return at all.

As a manager or supervisor, there are some key things you can do to influence the transition back to work. The biggest area of influence is communication; make sure you keep in contact with the worker when they’re away.

Connecting on a personal level is important; so don’t make the communication only about getting a certificate or confirming how long they will be away from work.

  • Make time to listen and talk with the worker; don’t forget to ask how they are, and be prepared to listen to the same story a few times, particularly if they aren’t coping well.
  • Offer them support such as get well gifts (if applicable), make them aware of the employee assistance program (EAP) or any other support that might be available. Let them know the options you have for them when they can come back to work.
  • It’s also important to set some simple boundaries in your communication. Remember you are supporting them, not harassing them.

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What is ‘Good Work’?

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’.

Top 10 tips to making ‘suitable duties’ easy

Identifying suitable work options once the worker can start returning to work can be a challenge, but before you ‘call in help’ from an external expert, you should consider the following:

  • Confirm the preferred communication method – Set expectations on method of contact (for example a text message, email or phone call) and frequency of check-ins.
  • Involve the member in identifying things they can do – They know their job and are a great resource in identifying the parts of the job they can do. This helps gain their buy-in and support for the selected tasks. If the worker believes they can do tasks, the treating medical parties will almost always endorse the duties presented to them.
  • Think broadly as to what can be ‘suitable’ work – ‘Suitable’ duties don’t have to be based in an office. If the normal duties aren’t office based, don’t automatically look at this.
  • Work to the worker’s strengths and what they can contribute to the workplace. Can the worker perform productive work from home? Look at duties that aren’t time sensitive, so it reduces any unwanted pressure, particularly with the first few days of returning to work. It’s important to not have ‘busy jobs’; ensure the worker feels they’re contributing to the workplace. The health benefits of Good Work have significant evidence that people’s early participation in meaningful work reduces longer term work disability and unemployment risk.
  • Consider modifying the start time – Would a different start or finish time make it easier for the member? For example, it may give more time to get ready in the morning, avoid traffic and attend rehabilitation exercises.
  • Organise regular breaks – Schedule breaks into the allocated work day every 15 or 30 minutes and check they’re taking their break.
  • Organise how they will get to and from work – If they can’t drive, can someone pick them up or drop them off? Do you have a company rideshare account to organise transport to and from work? Do they need different parking arrangements?
  • Set up a buddy or helping hand – If the work has a very small element that is physical or outside their restrictions, assign a specific support person. Meet with the support person and the member on the first day to manage the expectations on when to use help and check-in to make sure this arrangement is working.
  • Keep your relationship with the worker and team as normal as possible – so they don’t feel excluded. Invite them to social events, meetings or morning tea. When they start back at work, make it a point to drop in and check how they’re doing. Avoid giving out personal medical information. Keep things simple and factual around the duties the person is undertaking and that this is under medical instructions.
  • Educate the supervisor – Ensure the supervisor is aware of the time and date the member is due to work, a basic understanding of the injury. Keep it simple and factual; for example let them know whether it’s a leg or shoulder injury, the type of duties they can and can’t do, and who to contact if things don’t go as per plan.
  • Set clear expectations – Confirm who is involved in the return-to-work communication. Identify who (for example onsite manager, supervisor, injury management or work, health and safety contact, team leader and roster coordinator):
    • is contacting the worker;
    • is preparing the return to work plan and liaising with the medical team;
    • approves or endorses the arrangements outlined in the plan;
    • needs to be updated if problems arise with the plan or if something changes (i.e. the member is sick).

Let the member know who needs to be updated after a review with their doctor or needs an updated medical certificates. Appointments should be scheduled outside work hours. Keep the relevant people updated on return-to-work arrangements.

If you’ve doing all this, and feel like things are still not working, talk to a workplace rehabilitation provider. They are experts in assisting people back to work and overcoming barriers to work participation.

Naomi Goods, an occupational therapist by profession, shared her insights about the step by step process on how to return to work. Naomi is the WA manager for Star Injury Management, a Workplace Rehabilitation Provider. She has over 13 years’ experience working in workplace health, injury management and injury prevention.

To know more about the return to work process, please get in touch with the LGIS injury management team at [email protected].

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