Returning to work after an injury can be a very frustrating process for both the employee and the employer. Deciding whether or not you are ready to return is difficult in many cases, and returning too early can have serious consequences. Among the most pressing of these consequences are recurrence of the original injury, delayed or inhibited recovery from doing too much too soon, or a secondary injury caused by favoring the injured area or from deconditioning from being less physically active for a period of time post-injury.
Given those potential problems, getting return to work decisions right is important for the peace of mind of the injured workers as well as for workplace injury prevention.
What is it that makes return to work decisions so uncertain in so many cases? The fundamental problem is that these decisions are often made by physicians who have not had access to all relevant information on the situation. Physicians may base their decisions on observations of the employee during a brief office visit or on their level of medical recovery – factors that do not offer a full picture, since they do not evaluate work-related functional recovery.
Additionally, these physicians often have very little, if any, knowledge of the worker's daily job demands, which is essential to judging whether or not a worker can handle those demands. Return to work decisions based on incomplete information often result in employees returning before they are ready, endangering recovery and health.
Workplace Injury Prevention: Adding Accuracy to the Return to Work Process
Employers can take the guesswork and anxiety out of the return to work process by taking precautions to ensure that decisions are based on full and accurate information. Among the most important of these precautions is to ensure that return to work fitness for duty tests are done post-injury – as the recovery and acute rehabilitation period is nearing its end.
Return to work fitness for duty tests are most often done by physical or occupational therapists. They are used in effective return to work programs to assess whether or not an injured employee can safely manage the physical demands they will face in performing the essential functions of their jobs. If functional testing shows that the employee’s abilities do not match the job demands, return to full duty will be premature. In such cases, the results of that return to work functional test can be used to aid the design of a safe and appropriate transitional duty program to help that injured employee ease back into the workforce safely and efficiently. A work conditioning program, combined with the transitional duty, will also promote more efficient and safe return to work.
Providing physicians with the results of a well-designed, evidence-based and validated functional capacity evaluation gives them the final piece of information they need to make solid return to work recommendations. This accurate and objective evaluation of work-related function also serves to reduce anxiety in injured employees, reassuring them that they are physically capable of returning to work without serious risk of re-injury. In addition, employers are then able to retain valued employees without compromising workplace injury prevention.