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Safely returning to work after injury

Preventing illnesses and injuries is a shared responsibility among everyone in the workplace, and when an employee is injured on the job, or develops an occupational illness, the workplace is accountable for ensuring the employee receives the care and support that is required.

November 3, 2021   by Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

Photo: skynesher / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

At any given time in Canada, eight to 12 per cent of the workforce is off work due to injury and receiving workers’ compensation, long-term disability, or weekly indemnity benefits. So how can you, as an organization, continue to support employees’ return to work after a workplace injury?

Whether an employee is coming back from a mental or physical injury, the guiding principles remain the same. Their return-to-work plan – a written action plan outlining the steps to keep the worker employed and returning them to work safely, should focus on their functional abilities and not on the injury, illness, or cause. It is important that all parties work together so that the injured employee can return to work safely.

Elements of a return-to-work program
Your organization’s return-to-work program should include a policy statement that outlines management’s commitment to a safe-and-early return to work by specifying the scope, principles, and intent of the program.

The program should be developed by a representative committee, including labour, management, and union representation from all areas of the organization. Ensure that the program outlines the responsibilities of everyone involved in the return-to-work process, and that all injured workers are treated in a fair and consistent manner. The program should focus on action, rehabilitation, and efforts to return the employee to their pre-injury position, or a position that is comparable in function and income. While every effort should be made to return the worker to their pre-injury position, some workers never fully recover from their injuries and require permanent accommodation. Make sure the program describes how they will be accommodated, with clear transition steps.

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All staff need to understand the program and know how to access this information. The policy and program highlights may be shared during the health and safety or human resources orientation for all new and transferred employees. The program should be reviewed regularly for legislative changes and for any opportunities for improvement that arise while going through the return to work process.

Get involved right from the beginning
Finding the right balance of a safe and healthy return to work may be challenging. Returning to work too early may increase the risk of re-injury, however, the longer the employee is away from work, the less likely they are to return to their job.

Studies have shown that in the case of an illness or injury, early intervention is critical. Make early and considerate contact with the injured worker and discuss next steps. Show your concern, be understanding when addressing their issues, and reassure them that you will be working together on their return-to-work plan.

What’s in a return-to-work plan?
An injured worker will need to have an individualized return-to-work plan. Every step may not go as planned; be flexible and allow for revisions as necessary.

Focus on safe, meaningful, and productive duties while balancing the needs of both the workplace and the injured individual. With input from the worker’s healthcare professional, accommodations should align with the organization’s needs and based on the current functional abilities and limitations of the worker.

It is a good practice to review and identify meaningful tasks or jobs at your workplace and assess any modifications or accommodations that may be suitable. The physical and mental demands of the tasks and jobs can be presented to the employee and their health care professional to ensure that the tasks are a good match for their abilities and limitations.

Document the offer of suitable work, listing details of what duties or tasks are available for the worker. Any support that will be provided or available to them should also be documented.

Identify any modified tasks they can do if they’re unable to perform their usual tasks. Include milestone dates, times, tasks, and expectations and involve the injured worker throughout this planning process.

When discussing accommodations, if possible, ask what some of the challenges before the absence were and what could potentially be a challenge now that they are back at work.

Employees returning to work after an injury or illness may also have concerns about stigma, judgement or what their colleagues may think or assume happened. A return-to-work plan should outline what information will be communicated and shared. Let the team know that the employee will be returning so that any retraining can be planned and just as importantly, they can be welcomed back. Do not tolerate gossip and other uncivil behaviours that can lead to stigma and an unsupportive environment.

When the employee returns to duty following their injury, go over any changes to procedures, the department, or the organization. Check in frequently to see how they are doing, and if any further modifications or accommodations are needed. Review their individual plan within the first two weeks to make sure that progress is being made and that a gradual increase to full duties can be achieved. Through regular contact and a shared goal of a successful return to work, the organization demonstrates that they care and are interested in the well-being of the employee.

Finally, treating all workers with civility and respect, and including them early in the return to work process, will help ensure that all workers are provided with the necessary support for a healthy and safe return to work.
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The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness.