Let’s face it: the return to work process can be a chaotic one. Each case requires consideration of the individuals' unique physical and psychological health, as well as the particulars of their role and the environment they work in.
Although it is difficult to envisage a comprehensive ‘best practice’ approach to return to work, recent studies have stressed a link between organisational policies and practices to return to work outcomes. One such study is from Canada’s Institute for Work & Health (IWH).
While co-leader of the study, Dr. Ben Amick, concedes that there is “no magic bullet” when it comes to unravelling the complexity of the return-to-work process, he suggests that carefully created policies and practices allow organisations to bring to bear a degree of method to the madness.
IWH STUDY – "How Do Organisational Policies and Practices (Policies and Practices) Affect Return to Work and Successful Work Role Functioning Following a Musculoskeletal-Related Disease Injury?"
The study was conducted on 630 workers who had filed musculoskeletal–related insurance claims. The intention of the study was not only to further the link between policies and practices and return to work outcomes, but help explain why.
According to Dr Amick, “organisational policies and practices are critical in predicting return to work and successful work-role functioning”.
The results established a link between policies and practices, and the rate and success of employees returning to work:
“Workers who gave their organisations high marks in terms of Organisational Policies and Practices were 1.9 times more likely to be back at work at six months, and 2.3 times more likely at 12 months than those who have their organisations low marks.”
“Similarly, workers who gave high marks were 2.3 times more likely to be back at work and functioning well at six months, and 2.2 times more likely at 12 months than those who gave their organisations low marks.”
Policies and practices that drive early and successful return to work
There are a number of factors that are important in return to work, including:
A workplace culture of safety and trust
While a number of focuses are said to be critical to return to work (ie early intervention, workplace culture of safety and trust), the IWH study identified two key drivers. It suggested that “workplaces should be supported in building and improving their practices for offering accommodated work to injured workers, and exploring ways to improve the self-efficacy of injured workers”.
Work accommodation involves changing the way a job is usually done, with the aim of reducing or eliminating barriers preventing an employee returning to work. Examples include:
Arranging suitable alternate duties
Providing for flexible or reduced hours
Physical changes to the work environment
Research suggests that this kind of flexibility on the part of the employer goes a long way toward improving return-to-work outcomes. For instance, a 2007 study by Franche et al of 632 workers with musculoskeletal injuries found that the availability of accommodated work was a “significant predictor” of earlier and more effective return-to work outcomes.
Self efficacy, or the ability to confidently manage a health condition and return to normal activities including work, was described as critical to optimal return-to-work outcomes.
Put simply, a confident person focuses on ways to achieve their goal. Conversely, a person lacking in confidence will focus on fears and obstacles, distracting them from their goal.
While the development of self-confidence relies heavily on the individual, organisations can foster self-confidence through company culture and smartly focused policies and practices. There are ways to promote and encourage self-efficacy to return to work, including:
Incentives and feedback throughout the process; and Colleague mentoring - those who have successfully returned to work will usually enjoy sharing their experience. Empathy is a powerful communication tool, and others' experience is a useful resource for workers seeking motivation.
The Bottom line
The IWF study adds to a growing body of research suggesting that the workplace can have a considerable impact on how workers experience the return to work process, and the quality of outcomes it produces.
If we think of the successful return to work as the ‘what’, organisational policies and practices represent the ‘how’. As Dr Amick points out, “(Policies and practices) that support workers can improve RTW sustainability by helping workers not only return to work, but also function well in their jobs.” Sustainable return to work remains the goal for both parties, providing piece of mind for injured workers and their families, while maximising productivity and minimising costs for employers.
About the author
Scott Sanderson is a writer for Return to Work Matters. For further information visit: www.rtwmatters.org