Common Obstacles to the Return to Work Process & How to Combat Them

[fa icon="calendar'] Jul 20, 2015 8:00:00 AM / by Deborah Lechner

When workplace injuries occur, the vast majority of injured workers are back to work within a week or two according to Liberty Mutual Research Institute For Safety report. However, for about one of every ten employees, getting back to work is a much slower and more difficult process. Researchers from The Institute of Work & Health have identified a number of common obstacles to the return to work (RTW) process that make it more difficult than it needs to be, as well as offering a number of methods for combating them.

Return to Work: Common Obstacles And Potential Solutions

In a report titled Red Flags/Green Lights: A Guide to Identifying and Solving Return-to-Work Problems, authors built on previous research regarding injured workers with long-term compensation claims to provide advice on overcoming obstacles that prevent successful RTW. Here are a few of the common obstacles along with a few simple ways to combat them:

  • Returning to work too early – Aside from employees who simply aren't physically ready to assume their normal duties, this category includes workers who have been required to return immediately after injury or even before injuries have been accurately diagnosed. All scenarios can result in re-injury or impede initial recovery. Conducting a functional physical abilities test after injury and providing more flexible RTW planning can help these employees obtain the time they need to heal and return to the job safely.
  • Transportation challenges – Injured workers may have injury-related driving restrictions, or their injuries may make driving difficult or unsafe. Transportation assistance or, when possible, temporary work-from home-arrangements, can make the transition easier.
  • Inadequate workplace accommodation – Job modification that seems suitable at first glance may pose hidden problems for a physically restricted worker, impeding recovery and risking re-injury. A thorough job demands analysis can clarify actual job tasks, physical demands, and help employers accommodate previously injured workers.
  • Fear of returning to work – The trauma of a serious injury can make returning to work emotionally difficult, affecting an employee's motivation and performance as well as the motivation of those around them. Researchers suggest that health and safety reviews and job reorientation are helpful in calming fears and addressing ongoing worries.

The dominant theme is that many of the most common obstacles to the return to work process are rooted in inadequate, inflexible, or poorly coordinated RTW planning. Another underlying issue is poor communication between the injured worker, health care providers, employers, supervisors, and other involved parties. Finally, many RTW programs also fail to take into account individual differences among injured workers, using one-size-fits-all solutions for workplace accommodations, functional abilities testing, and other aspects of rehabilitation and re-entry.

The end result of these combined factors is that returning workers may not receive the individualized support they need to safely and effectively re-enter the workforce after an injury. This makes an already difficult and frustrating process even more challenging for the worker, not to mention for employers, supervisors, and fellow employees.

The bottom line is an effective RTW program is key to an injured employee's safe and timely return to the workforce. If your RTW practices are not producing the results you need, professional help from occupational health and safety experts can help you design an effective program.

When are Physical abilities test best performed

Topics: Workers' Compensation

Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.