Take Action Now! Return to Work following a Psychological Injury – What Works & What Doesn’t?

A psychological injury represents a breakdown in work health and safety systems.  Yet responsibility for safety starts at the top that suggests management is not taking seriously its responsibility for wellbeing in the workplace. By management demonstrating their commitment to work health and safety, workers will see that they are committed to protecting their welfare.

Equally recovery at work following a psychological injury (or any workplace injury or illness) is the employers’ obligation.  This is not just from the Work Health & Safety perspective and valuing your workers it is also recognizing the significant costs such as an increase in the workers’ compensation premium.  As well there is the negative impact on the culture associated with your ill or injured workers being away from the workplace.

Why Is Managing Return To Work Important?

In Safe Work Australia’s paper ‘Return to Work in Psychological Claims – Analysis of the Return to Work Survey results’  the point is made, “It is clear that work-related factors such as  exposure to challenging clients, potentially traumatic events,  persistently high levels of work demands and poor-quality people  management contribute to onset and exacerbate existing psychological  distress symptoms in employees”.

It is also well accepted the longer an injured worker is away from work the less likely it is they will return at all.


The reality is though return to work following a psychological injury is recognised to be slower and less likely to be successful than after a physical injury.

Double Ouch!

So What Works?

How long someone stays away following a psychological injury depends on multiple factors that are not associated with the medical or physical dimensions of the injury or condition. Certainly there is evidence that psychosocial factors such as workers’ fears and beliefs about their conditions and the impact of re-entry to the workplace on their health have an impact.  So what else is known to have a significant influence on the success of any RTW program?

At La Trobe University in 2006 the topic of what works and what doesn’t work was explored in “Facilitators and barriers to Return to Work: A Literature Review’.  Following is a broad outline of the findings:

  • Advice to continue usual activities as normally as possible despite pain
  • Promotion of self-responsibility and self-care as part of worker’s recovery
  • Early contact with the worker by the workplace, ergonomic site visits and the presence of a return to work coordinator
  • Communication, cooperation and establishing common agreed goals between the injured worker, health providers, supervisors and management
  • Positive and effective approach to return to work by workplace underpinned by effective disability management’ policies and procedures such as a robust Return to Work program
  • Contact between health care provider and workplace and provision of modified duties
  • Being male and married
  • Higher level of education;

Are all associated (more or less) with better outcomes!

And What Doesn’t Work?

  • Letting the worker have prolonged time off work
  • Clinical interventions alone after a protracted time away from work
  • Lack of co-worker support for modified duty re-entry programs
  • Stressful work and low job satisfaction
  • Initial levels of perceived pain and perceived functional disability that are related with high levels of pain-related fears and catastrophizing about pain
  • Low expectations about returning to work
  • Lack of confidence in the ability to perform work-related activities
  • Elevated levels of anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction and depression

Are all associated (more or less) with poorer outcomes!

How Employer Responded To Their Psychological Claim

The fact is much of the variability in return to work outcomes is accounted for by what takes place at the workplace.

Safe Work Australia also advised in its publication, “the employee’s view of how their employer responded to their psychological claim had the greatest association with ‘Return to Work’ results in this analysis of the Survey”.  According to the findings, “79% of employees who agreed that their employer responded in a positive and supportive manner were back at work at the time the survey was completed, versus 52% of those who did not agree”.

Additionally it was noted similar findings in terms of the higher rates of return to work were associated with employer support, provision of information about rights and responsibilities, and fair treatment during and after the claims process.

Quality of People Management

Take action now to improve your Return to Work rate from psych injury

So what was the outcome of the research?  From a range of workplace mental health and RTW research there is sufficient evidence the report concluded, that “the timeliness and supportiveness of the employer response, perceptions of employer support and fairness, decision-making involvement, levels of work demands, and the quality of the people management environment (or organisational climate) significantly facilitate or hinder RTW of individuals with psychological injuries”.

Want To Take Action Now…

To improve the return to work rate of your people in the event of a psychological injury or any workplace injury or illness?

Talk to the experts at Active OHS. Use our Contact Form.

About the Author

Kerry Foster

Kerry Foster graduated with a B. Social Work in 1980 and since 1995 has been the Director of Active OHS a WorkCover and Comcare Accredited Workplace Rehabilitation Provider.  Active OHS is an Occupational Rehabilitation Centre in Sydney NSW that also offers WHS Training and Consulting, Ergonomic and Medico-legal Assessments as well as Outsourced RTW Co-ordinators.