Best practice steps for implementing a return to work program

With Safe Work Australia releasing new guidance, 'communication is key,' says lawyer offering tips for HR

Best practice steps for implementing a return to work program

Earlier this year, Safe Work Australia released some guidance and a template for creating a successful return to work program.  

In partnership with the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA), the government developed a guide and a step-by-step template for developing a successful return to work plan in collaboration with an injured or ill worker.

It provides practical advice on how to support an injured or ill worker as they prepare to return to work, including how to:

  • help everyone understand their role and responsibilities
  • lead a planning discussion, and
  • use the plan to help the worker return and stay at work.

Injuries beyond the workplace

Amber Chen, principal lawyer at Gordon Legal, said return to work programs should not necessarily be confined to people who are injured on the job.

“We have to think about the current scope of the workforce,” she told HRD Australia. “Individual workplaces will need to look at people who’ve become injured outside of the work context. It might not be that they suffered an injury on the job, but that they may have been involved in a motor vehicle accident, for example, during the weekend.”

Chen added that having a good return to work program in place can help the workforce stay engaged.

But what are the best practice steps for implanting a return to work program?

Return to work programs

An important step for employers is to have regular check-ins with the affected employee, Chen suggested.

“The feedback that I hear from workers is sometimes the lack of check-ins,” she said.

“Not only are they dealing with their physical or psychological injury but they feel so isolated from their peers, from their colleagues, their work environment and there are no check-ins from the employer on how they’re tracking along. And they feel like they're just left completely outside of the box. And that lack of check-ins can only exacerbate the condition and make it worse.”

Chen added that the workers should be actively involved when a return to work program is put in place.

“Communication is the key,” she said. “Where the worker feels engaged and included in the return to work plans and that process, I think that is probably likely to increase the success of that return to work plan.”

On the other hand, Chen warns employers against pressuring employees to return to the job.

“There's a fine line between feeling completely on the outer and no longer part of that workforce,” she said. “And on the other side, where I have workers saying, ‘I feel very harassed and this immense sense of pressure to be back when clearly my doctors have told me that I can't go back just yet’.

“It's really striking the balance between making sure that the check-ins are meaningful and that they are not putting too much pressure on the worker where they feel that they have to go back to their pre-injury duties within a couple of weeks or a couple of months.”

Concerns around return to work programs

Chen described some of the concerns around return to work programs, such as when key restrictions are not taken into consideration.

“Any return to work program must take into account the current certification of the treating practitioner,” she said. “In Victoria, injured workers must provide a certificate of capacity certified by the treating practitioner every 28 days. And there is a box where the doctor clearly outlines what the worker’s capacity is or is not – the restrictions in place.

“My concern is that when a worker is engaged in the return to work [program], sometimes the restrictions are not taking into account,” she said.

For example, if the certificate says a worker cannot lift more than 10kgs and the employer, for whatever reason, asks them to lift a 25kg keg, that can become problematic, Chen said.

“Because not only is the worker injured on a return to work, you are exposing the worker to an aggravation or further injury,” she said. “It would be a breach of the occupational health and safety legislation and that in turn will open up the potential for the employer to be sued at a later stage for not providing a safe system of work.”

Gradual process for returning to work

Chen emphasised that the point of a return to work program is that it is a gradual process and employers should take into account that an employee’s capacity fluctuates.  

“Typically, what we see with return to work programs is it'll start off with maybe three hours a day, three days a week, and then overtime that will increase to more hours, five hours, four days a week,” she said. “A slowly, graduated, return to work building up the worker’s capacity.”

And workers need to allow for potential setbacks rather than trying to push too hard when they do return to work, Chen added.

“If a worker is actively engaged but they have a setback, we have to allow for that fluctuation in their capacity and then be able to support that,” Chen said.

What else HR can do

While SafeWork Australia provides a good framework, Chen said employers should still consider the reality of implementing a return to work program.

“Making sure that yes, we've got this terrific framework in place, which really ticks all the boxes, but what are we doing in the actual individual workplace to ensure effective implementation of that framework?” she said.

Chen went on to say that a return to work program involves many stakeholders and therefore requires a lot of collaboration.

“It starts with the worker, the employer and involving the treating practitioner and working out an appropriate graduated, return to work plan collaboratively,” she said. “I think that will hopefully in turn ensure that the worker is engaged and feels a sense of ownership. And hopefully in due course the worker can go back and it’ll be a successful return to work program.”

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