Getting employees back 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, there are some things that employers can do to support their employee returning to work. Let’s start by looking at some questions we often get asked about employees going back to work after injury or illness.

Keeping your employees well at work is the main place to start. Read this blog about keeping well at work.

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?

Supporting your employee back to work as soon as possible after an injury or illness can mean a quicker and simpler recovery and return to productivity. This may mean returning to work before your 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 can do some aspects of their job but not others, talk about doing those parts of their work while still recovering. The psychological, social and physical benefits of someone being at work far outweighs them sitting at home waiting to recover.

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

Let’s flip that thought around:

  • What might it cost you not to have the person there?
  • Will you be missing out on their knowledge and experience in the workplace?
  • Think of the value they add to the team dynamic?
  • What are the implications of getting 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), it can help both of you. 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.

Medical professionals may issue medical certificates without a complete understanding of the job demands or alternative options available. By thinking about what they can do and offering suitable duties in line with that, the employee can seek a new medical certificate 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 help the program.

A doctor has cleared my employee, and they have started back at work. However, they are in pain again, so they’re 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 going back to work was appropriate.

Their body may be adjusting to something new or different. It can be like the soreness felt after the first session back at the gym or playing sport again after time off from it. If your employee has concerns or their symptoms are more than expected, encourage them to discuss it with their health professional for further management.

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 or progressively increase 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 functional 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 can 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 in returning 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 a vocational rehabilitation consultant’s expertise in assisting employees in returning 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 their return to work planning.

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