As a Lead Consultant at APM WorkCare, I am experienced in assisting employees with their transition back into a working environment after an extended time away from work.
What is most important in the process is ensuring all stakeholders agree with the return-to-work plan: the employer, medical practitioners, employees and agent/customers all need to be on the same page.
The employee in particular, needs to make the effort to liaise with all parties, something that can be particularly challenging for those who are pain focused, not open to suitable duties or are psychologically affected.
Work can be a structured routine for many and a long period away can cause increased anxiety, depression and low confidence levels.
My role is to support clients’ overall mental health and help them gain the confidence and tools needed to safely return to the workplace. I do this through regular appointments with the employee and employer; providing education; facilitating services and support; regularly collaborating with relevant treating medical practitioners; and by simply listening to the client’s needs.
Returning to work with a new employer versus the same employer
In the case of employees who need to find new work, I hold regular meetings to build their confidence levels and develop what’s known as ‘work-hardening activities’. This can include activities such as a structured exercise program, work trial or suitable duties for a graduated return to work program – all designed to gradually and safely re-introduce someone into work.
Time then needs to be taken to make sure the new employer understands the client’s situation, and to help break down any barriers in the new workplace as they begin a graduated or full return to work plan.
With the same employer scenarios, regular communication between the employer, employee and their treating parties is key. We must be dynamic and adjust the return-to-work plan as required to ensure the right pace, support, and a successful transition back to work.
Managing the challenges of returning a worker to the workplace
One of the biggest barriers for returning workers is mental health. After an extended period of time away, employees can develop a loss of connection to their original workplace, or have little confidence in their ability to change career paths.
If unable to return to their original workplace, accepting the situation and moving to a new working environment can be very difficult. It is not uncommon for employees to feel a loss of identity or ruminate on a negative injury experience.
However, regardless of the circumstances, every stakeholder must be aligned and contribute to the goals of the returning employee – and it is our role to facilitate this. We do this by outlining the employee’s medical capacity and any restrictions or modifications needed to support the employee’s safe and sustainable return to work. The employer’s role is to support and communicate with the employee, providing suitable duties to allow the worker to continue to engage with the workplace and participate in work as part of their recovery. Miscommunication (or no communication) is a common struggle we support employers to overcome, and the employee is ultimately accountable for their recovery.
How companies can help
To maximise the safety of any employee’s return to work, it’s critical to build a culture of trust in which employees feel heard and supported – including when they are off work with an injury. Often employers shy away from contacting employees if they are off work with a claim. However, it is even more important to stay connected and support workers when they are injured. Studies have even shown that a supportive workplace culture has a greater impact on return-to-work outcomes for physical claims.
Businesses are often busy – and time and capacity can be a constraint. In these cases, it’s worth looking at how an external professional might be able to support the company’s wellbeing and productivity goals, and help build the right culture to support better return to work outcomes.
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