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Helping employees back to work after illness or injury

Margo Lydon
Margo Lydon
05 April 2018 4 minute readShare
Doctor, nurse, healthcare

Despite our best efforts, sometimes injury or illness can make it difficult for employees to continue working. Yet that doesn’t mean their skills need to be lost to the business altogether.

At first glance it may seem that sick or injured employees will benefit most from time off, but the solution isn’t always that simple.

International studies have found that staying at work or returning to work soon after illness or injury helps people to recover better and more quickly, boosting their chances of long-term employment.

Employers will find that it leads to improved staff retention and a reduction in costs relating to lost productivity, staff training and overtime.

As an SME owner or manager, you are well-positioned to have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of your staff. You know the business intimately, have good relationships with your employees, and will acutely feel – both emotionally and financially – the loss of an employee.

To support you and your business during the often-challenging time when an employee is injured or ill, consider these important steps for managing the transition:

Respond early and positively

A key factor influencing whether people with an illness or injury remain at work is the way their employer reacts.

A study conducted by Safe Work Australia in 2017 found that when employers positively responded to people experiencing mental illness, 79 per cent of employees stayed at work. When employer responses were perceived as negative, only 52 per cent of employees remained at work.

Furthermore, the study showed that it is important to respond as early as possible on learning of an employee’s illness or injury. When the employer made contact early, 77 per cent of those employees in the study remained in work, as opposed to 52 per cent who had no employer contact.

During the initial stages of absence and when an illness or injury is first disclosed, managers, supervisors and HR professionals have the power to directly influence outcomes through their behaviour and communications style.

It’s a critical time for you, the employer, to reach out to your employee and indicate clearly the level of support you will provide.

Develop a workplace plan, together with the employee

A proactive way to support employees is to develop a workplace plan. Known as Stay at Work (SAW) or Return to Work (RTW) plans, these programs formally set out the assistance that will be provided to the employee, and outline a clear path for them to return to work, or stay at work, safely and productively.

It is vital that the program be developed collaboratively with the employee, taking into account the employee’s specific circumstances and building on their individual strengths.

The employee’s involvement in the creation of a SAW or RTW plan can be a determining factor for the employee’s commitment to the program’s success.

Utilise strength-based questioning

To help work out an effective workplace plan that suits your employee, it is important to ask the right questions. The following are three questions that help engage employees and encourage them to focus on their ability and work preferences as they work with you to develop the plan:

  • “How can I help you be successful at work?” This question aims to identify barriers to the employee returning to work, and to help you come up with solutions that build on the employee’s strengths.
  • “What will you do to ensure this workplace plan is successful for you?” This question requires the employee to maintain responsibility and commit to the success of their Stay at Work or Return to Work program.
  • “How will we deal with future issues in a way that is healthy for you?” This question seeks to identify how managers, peers and co-workers can best interact with the employee during the program, to maintain positive communication throughout.

Implement work modifications

SAW and RTW plans usually include any adjustments or accommodations that need to be made to the workplace, conditions or duties so that the employee can remain safely and productively at work or return to work sooner.

Adapting these modifications can lessen high job demands and improve the employee’s ability to cope with job stressors.

If staff aren’t able to return to their previous duties, the plan may need to include training to provide the employee with the skills to perform different tasks either for the short or long term.

Collaborate with the insurer

Life insurers can be a valuable resource in helping to provide the best possible support to an injured or ill employee.

Many business owners are time-poor, assuming multiple roles including line manager, business development manager, and human resources officer, and may not have training in dealing with illness or injury in the workplace.

Life insurers are well-placed to provide helpful and practical information. They can help you to develop skills and knowledge in dealing with illness or injury, including how to react positively in the crucial early stages, and can assist in the development of a workplace plan.

In addition, insurers often provide support in the form of case management and access to multidisciplinary teams, including doctors, psychologists and rehabilitation consultants, who can walk alongside you in helping your employee(s).

Know your role as the employer

Clearly, staying in the workplace or returning to work sooner rather than later is positive for both employees and employers.

International studies indicate that if a person is off work for 20 days, there is a 70 per cent chance they will return to work, but if they are off work for 70 days, the chance of ever returning to work falls to just 35 per cent.

While attending to the physical or medical needs of an injured employee is important, there is a growing consensus that the speed at which an employee returns to work is largely determined by the workplace.

The way you as an employer respond is key to helping your employee get back to meaningful work.

Margo Lydon is CEO and company secretary of SuperFriend.

Helping employees back to work after illness or injury
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Margo Lydon
Margo Lydon

Adam Zuchetti is the former editor of MyBusiness and a senior freelance media professional, specialising in the fields of business, personal finance and property. In 2020, he also embarked on his own business journey – inspired in part by the entrepreneurs and founders he had met through his journalistic work – with the launch of customised pet gifting and subscription service Paws N’ All.

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