Managing your employees return to work after an injury or illness can be challenging for any employer. To add to the challenge, no two return to work situations are ever the same.

Although there are no hard and fast rules, it is helpful to understand what things you can do to help your employee get back to work.

To help you with this process, we look at some common questions and provide you with some helpful tips below.

Common questions & misconceptions about the return to work process

The doctor has said my employee can commence back at work, but they are not 100% better yet. Is it too soon?

A safe and supportive return to work as soon as possible after an injury or illness usually means a quicker and simpler recovery. and return to productivity.This usually means returning to work before the employee is 100% fit.

Consider a sportsperson returning to playing sport after an injury. Part of their rehabilitation will involve a gradual re-introduction to playing the sport rather than only strengthening in the gym.

If someone has the capacity to do some aspects of their job but not others, talk about doing those parts of their job while still recovering. The psychological, social and physical benefits of someone being at work far outweighs the alternative option of them sitting at home waiting to recover.

It costs too much to have my employee back at work while they are still recovering from an injury. We need them back at 100%!

Let’s flip that thought around:

  • What might it cost you to not have the person there?
  • Will you be missing out on their knowledge and experience in the workplace?
  • The value they add to the team dynamic?
  • Will you need to get someone else in to fill their role?

If you can accommodate having your employee back at work (even to perform part of their usual role), that will be of value to both you and your employee. Providing an opportunity for them to stay at work helps keep work life as normal as possible until they are back up to full capacity.

My employee’s medical certificate says ‘fully unfit for work’ however I can offer alternative work in the meantime.

It is not uncommon for a medical certificate to be issued without the medical professional having a full understanding of the demands of the job or alternative options that are available. By thinking about what they can do, and offering suitable duties in line with that, a new medical certificate may be sought to support the employee recover at work.

A vocational rehabilitation consultant can assist you in this process by developing an appropriate plan based on the employee’s current abilities. They can also suggest options available and support getting further medical certification to support the plan.

My employee has been cleared by a doctor and has started back at work. However, they are in pain again so are not able to work. What do I do?

Experiencing an increase in symptoms when returning to work following a period away is not uncommon. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong, providing the return to work was appropriate. Their body may be adjusting to something new or different and can be like the soreness felt after the first session back at the gym, or playing sport again after time off from it. However, if your employee has concerns or their symptoms are more than ‘what would be expected’, encourage them to discuss it with their health professional so they can help to problem solve ways to manage this.

We can compare returning to work after an injury, to returning to running marathons following an injury. During time off recovering, you would expect the marathon runner to have reduced strength, fitness and endurance. Therefore, they would require a period of gradually increasing their distance and speed before running the next marathon. Sometimes the same can be said of work fitness. Depending on the injury and type of job, it may be sensible to gradually build up hours at work and/or by gradually increasing the amount of physical work your employee is doing. Their brain and body may need time to re-adapt to working and re-build that working fitness again.

Top tips to support your employees return to work

  • Maintain contact during a prolonged absence. Encourage your employee to come into work when they are able to help them maintain connections with work and colleagues.
  • Respond when your employee tells you they are ready to return to work and react positively. This helps to get the process off on the right foot.
  • Be open-minded and willing to consider various options to assist your employee to return to work. This may include flexible options such as alternative light duties, reduced hours, providing a temporary car park etc. The list is limited only by your imagination.
  • Not all employee return to work processes go according to plan. Be open to modifying the plan and providing alternative options, if required.
  • Listen to your employee. They often have good ideas regarding appropriate ways to return to work.
  • Ask for help if you are unsure of anything or require assistance. This may involve engaging the expertise of a vocational rehabilitation consultant who is experienced in assisting employees to return to work.
  • When other stakeholders are involved (eg ACC, vocational rehabilitation consultants, other medical professionals), assist them to help your employee by maintaining regular contact and providing information as requested. This may include providing detailed information regarding the employee’s job and work environment to support return to work 

Further reading

For more advice to help assist your employees back to work, see ACC’s web page:
Working with us to get your employee back to work.