Return to work plan – obtaining the injured worker’s input is vital


Return to work plans with set stages, developed together with the injured worker’s input and their treating doctor offer employers and injured workers the best chance of a timely and sustainable return to work.

Did you know that about two in five incapacitated injured workers are unsure of RTW goals!

A 2012 NT WorkSafe survey  found that many seriously injured workers are not provided with a return-to-work program, or don’t believe they are properly consulted throughout the RTW process.

This survey of 115 injured workers – who took more than five days off work due to injury in the 12 months to June 2012 – found that injured workers were, on average, between “somewhat” and “quite a bit satisfied” with how their overall workers’ compensation claim was handled.

However, more importantly, more than one in three (36%) workers were not provided with a RTW plan, and as many as 40% of those who were on a plan were unsure of its goals. Further, nearly one in five (17.4%) were very dissatisfied with their level of involvement in deciding whether they should return to their pre-injury roles. Surprised? Nope!

Return to work plan – obtaining the injured worker’s input is vital

In order to return an injured worker back to work in a safe, yet durable way, employers must work collaboratively with the injured worker and his/her treating medical practitioner.

Obtaining the injured worker’s input when developing the return to work plan is vital, as research has shown injured workers are more likely to achieve their return to work goal within the estimated and set (but flexible)  timeframe if they’re given opportunities to participate in the process.

Whilst employers should start thinking about a return to work plan as soon as a worker is injured it is vital to receive the other parties’ buy-in during the RTW process.

Steps to take for a return to work plan

1) The first step in developing a return to work plan is for employers to really clarify the injured worker’s function – what they can and cannot do in relation to work. Employers can do this by assessing the injured worker’s medical certificate, and – with the injured worker’s permission (consent) – speak to their treating doctor or specialist.If there is any uncertainty as to what the medical certificate means, the employer should contact the doctor to clarify it.

2) The second step is determining what work duties the injured worker is able to perform. Employers should be very clear on the functional demands of the injured worker’s pre-injury position/duties and determine where (and if) these match their current capacity.

For example, if the injured worker works in a warehouse, and they have a lifting restriction of 10kg, it could be that the injured worker can perform part of their role/job, such as forklift driving only, because it does not involve any lifting.

The employer may then need to identify more sedentary tasks the injured worker is capable of performing, as to round out their role/job.

3) The third step, after having matched the injured worker’s functional capacity and work duties, is for the employer to seek medical recommendations as to how the whole return to work plan should be staged (i.e. gradual hours) and how long it will be before the injured worker is likely to return to full capacity.

Obviously length of the return to work plan will depend on the nature of the worker’s injury(ies) and the duties the injured worker is aiming to return to.

Staging the return to work plan is very important

A good return to work plan is staged, period.

The return to work plan, which starts when the injured worker has a capacity to perform (some) work, should outline the various stages the worker will go through before reaching the goal of returning to pre-injury hours and duties.

It may for example state that the injured worker is expected to return to pre-injury hours in 6 weeks, and that their hours and duties will (gradually) change during this time.

An employer should ensure each RTW plan is flexible and monitor it closely, watching for potential and real any barriers or issues that come up along the RTW way.

For example, if one of the injured worker’s duties is causing the injured worker some pain, the employer should determine whether the task is actually suitable, and whether it could be changed.

This could be as simple as providing the injured worker with (ergonomic)  equipment or tools to make the task easier.

Employers should also seek the medical practitioner’s opinion if any issues arise, and be prepared to extent or change a RTW stage. Sometimes RTW plans don’t upgrade from one stage to another as anticipate or expected as an injured worker may exacerbate their injury, or their recovery time might not be as fast as expected.

In these cases, it is important for the employer, the injured worker and the medical professional to provide their opinions on how best to proceed.

It’s also important that the injured worker (is allowed) explains how they feel they’re coping with their RTW plan(s)

Who monitors the injured worker’s Return to Work?

Who monitors the injured worker and the RTW plan usually depends on the size of the employer (company). Some employers have dedicated RTW coordinators.

If an employer doesn’t have a RTW coordinator, then responsibility will generally fall to the injured worker’s manager/supervisor, as they spent the most time with the injured worker and are. possibly, well positioned to understand how the injured worker is coping. It’s important that the manager / supervisor regularly touches base with the injured worker and ask how they are doing, even watch the worker undertake duties, and check is they are able to perform their tasks productively

Handling Return to Work objections

Employers should prepare for the possibility that a worker will object to a RTW plan.

Injured workers may object to a RTW plan that they feel isn’t appropriate for their medical condition. Or feel that the duties identified are not appropriate for them.

So it’s very important that the employer is offering suitable duties that are within that injured worker’s functional capacity and… that the duties are (reasonably) meaningful to the worker!

If an injured worker asks for some flexibility or accommodation, the  employer should obviously first consider whether the damands are reasonable before making a decision. For example, if an injured worker asks to perform morning shifts rather than afternoon shifts because their pain isn’t bad in the mornings, then that’s probably a reasonable suggestion, and should not be dismissed by the employer. Conversely, if the employer considers an injured worker’s request unreasonable, it is in its rights to say it can’t be accommodated.

Return to work plans with set stages, developed together with the injured worker’s input and their treating doctor offer employers and injured workers the best chance of a timely and sustainable return to work.


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