Not so long ago, the advice commonly given to those recovering from an injury was “go home and take it easy”.
However, these days most doctors advise their patients to keep as active as possible post-injury. In particular, an early return to work is considered beneficial to the recovery process.
This is because the physical activity involved in work can actually be therapeutic, provided tasks that may aggravate the injury aren’t attempted too soon.
Returning to work can also have psychological benefits. Being stuck at home after an injury with nothing to do can easily lead to feelings of isolation and even depression.
On the other hand, the mental stimulation and social interaction that work offers can boost confidence and self-esteem, which can assist with the healing process. For those of us familiar with the old approach, the notion that someone can still come to work when not 100% fit may require a bit of a mindset change.
Many employers are probably used to telling injured employees to “come back when you’re fully recovered”.
We’ve already seen how this may not be in the employee’s best interests — and more often than not it isn’t in the employer’s best interests either.
How an early return can benefit employers
Generally, an employee will still be able to make a significant contribution in the workplace, even if they can’t perform all aspects of their usual role.
For example, an employee who normally does heavy labour may be able to do paper work or light manual tasks until they recover.
Alternatively, the injured worker may return to their usual role, with another employee helping out with any particular tasks (eg, heavy lifting) that the recovering worker can’t do.
Although it may seem like a hassle having to reshuffle work roles or responsibilities, the alternatives are less appealing — operating “one worker down” until the injured employee recovers fully, or incurring the cost and hassle of recruiting, hiring and training a replacement worker.
Taking a proactive role in employee rehabilitation can have a further benefit too. It sends the message to staff that you care about their welfare, and can help you achieve a greater degree of staff loyalty and commitment.
The key to ensuring a successful return to work is to assign the employee suitable duties only at first, then allow them to gradually build up their hours and/or tasks over time.
If you’re unsure what constitutes suitable duties, don’t worry. ACC can offer lots of advice and practical assistance in this area. If necessary, they can coordinate a tailored “return to work plan” or “individual rehabilitation plan” for the injured employee.
Normally, this is done by bringing all interested parties together, including employer, employee, ACC, health professionals and, if appropriate, extended family/whanau.
Depending on the severity of the employee’s injury, an occupational therapist or physiotherapist may be engaged to carry out a workplace assessment aimed at identifying what tasks the employee can do to help them recover safely.
If no alternative duties are available immediately, ACC can offer programmes that help injured employees resume fitness (so they can eventually return to their old role) or learn new work skills. As the employer, you can play a key role in recommending suitable new skills to learn.
Here are a few pointers on how you can help an employee achieve a successful return to work after injury:
• Contact the employee as soon as possible after they get injured.
• Encourage prompt treatment, which can help bring about a swift recovery. Delayed treatment, on the other hand, can prolong and worsen an existing condition.
• Reassure the employee they have your support and a job to come back to.
• Maintain regular contact with the employee while they’re off work, as feelings of isolation can set in quickly. Keep them up to date with what’s going on at work, and invite them to team meetings and work social outings.
Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind that most employees will recover from injuries. With the right approach, therefore, you can come to an arrangement that, in the long run, will serve both your interests.