Engage injured workers in the return-to-work process

by Elizabeth Barnard25 Jun 2012

The return-to-work process for injured workers is critical in achieving successful outcomes for employers and employees alike. A key aspect of the process is engaging injured workers in the rehabilitation and return-to-work process as soon as possible.

According to one risk consultancy firm, 2cRisk, the best practice approach for employers to follow in return-to-work processes includes:

1. Clear job descriptions and job task analysis (JTA) are critical

Being able to clearly identify the physical and psychological components of an occupation is critical to any rehabilitation process. The JTA forms the foundation of any graduated return-to-work program (GRTW) and can greatly assist the treating medical practitioner in developing an effective return to work program in consultation with the return to work coordinator.

The JTA ensures that that the pre-injury department is involved in the GRTW program and places clear focus on what the worker can do, rather than what they cannot.

2. Use of pre-employment medicals

Pre-existing conditions have the potential to derail any GRTW program and in some instances, may be the originating source of the injury, exacerbated by the occupational tasks. De-constructing what is work related and what is not, quite often leads to animosity in the injured worker, who usually associates their injury with what happened at work, rather than the claim determination requirements.

For injured workers with non-work related conditions such as diabetes, obesity, arthritis and other degenerative conditions, managing these in the context of a work related claim for compensation becomes very difficult and can lead to extended periods of rehabilitation. Identifying an employee’s health status should ideally start prior to being hired so that if required, a health management plan can be put in place to reduce the likelihood of injury or exacerbation due to the work environment.

3. Communication

The first conversation with the worker is critical and forms the foundation of what will occur during any rehabilitation program. It helps manage expectations and set a standard for what will be communicated and when.

Ongoing communication should involve all of the key stakeholders, including management, the GP, allied health providers and insurers, but must start and finish with the injured worker themselves.

4. Do not leave any injured worker at home and out of contact

Carrying on from “Communication”, isolated workers are more likely to experience difficulties in returning to work. We know from studies that the longer someone is off work, the less likely it is they will return.

5. Commence a gradual return to work as soon as possible

Just because someone is injured, does not mean that workshould cease, rather it should, under medical supervision, be modified to accommodate injured worker’s needs.

6. Return-to-work needs planning; this should always include planning for failure

Not every injured worker is going to return to their pre-injury occupation. Planning for this, in the more serious cases, should start immediately and include conditioning the worker for this via counselling, vocational assistance, training and literacy assistance. Don’t wait until it’s too late!

7. Engage with all levels of management; a sense of ownership is paramount

As seen with most systems within a workplace, if there is ownership and buy-in from senior management, this filters down to the shop floor and to the workforce as a whole. Workers who are not engaged by management are far more likely to experience a disproportionate outcome through failures in rehabilitation and return-to-work.

8. Learn from the past.

In order to get an understanding of how well (or poor) your return-to-work practices are, engage with your insurer and explore your past claims data to ascertain what types of injuries are occurring and what sorts of outcomes your organisation experiences.

9. Develop health programs around your injury experiences

For example, if you claims history is suggestive of back claims, implement a health program aimed directly at targeting core spine strength. This can be further targeted by understanding which occupations are more likely to incur these types of injuries and by doing so, your organisation can use health management tools to manage, rather than just waiting until further claims come in.

10. Survey injured workers after their return to work

Most individuals who have returned to work following an injury have a story to tell. Learn from them. Surveying injured workers is a critical and yet often underutilised tool for gaining valuable insight into how your return-to-work and indeed rehabilitation system works.


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