How workplace policies affect return to work

Organizational policies and practices play a role in whether or not injured workers will return to work and if they will perform well once back at work. A new study from the Institute for Work & Health not only demonstrates this, but also helps explain why.

Organizational policies and practices (OPPs) matter when it comes to return to work. They predict the likelihood of injured workers returning and, more importantly, if these workers will function well once back in their jobs.

This is the finding of a recent analysis of the Readiness for Return-to-Work Cohort from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), co-led by Scientific Director Dr. Ben Amick and Senior Scientist Dr. Sheilah Hogg-Johnson. Organizational policies and practices are critical in predicting return to work (RTW) and successful work-role functioning at six and 12 months, Amick says. They are important after taking into consideration an injured worker’s health, psychological status and job characteristics, showing just how multi-faceted and complex the return-to-work process is. There is certainly no magic bullet.

The Readiness for Return-To-Work Cohort followed a group of some 630 workers who filed musculoskeletal-related claims with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. At six and 12 months post-injury, these workers were asked if they had returned to work and, if so, if they were able to meet the demands of their job, given their physical and mental health status. Injured workers were also asked about their organization’s policies and practices, their ability to cope with pain in the return-to-work process, and if accommodated work had been offered and accepted.

The analysis found that workers who gave their organizations high marks in terms of their OPPs were 1.9 times more likely to be back at work at six months, and 2.3 times more likely at 12 months than those who gave their organizations low marks. Similarly, workers who gave high marks were 2.3 times more likely to be back at work and functioning well at six months, and 2.2 times more likely at 12 months than those who gave their organizations low marks.

What made this research novel was its ability to use the Readiness for Return-To-Work Cohort to show two ways in which policies and practices may be affecting return-to-work outcomes. This research offers the first evidence on how OPPs support RTW and functioning well in the job—through influencing work accommodation offers and the self-efficacy of workers in dealing with pain in the RTW process, says Amick.

This means that OPPs that support workers can improve RTW sustainability by helping workers not only return to work, but also function well in their jobs, Amick adds. Therefore, workplaces should be supported in building and improving their practices for offering accommodated work to injured workers, and in exploring ways to improve the self-efficacy of injured workers, perhaps by looking at success stories in chronic disease management.

This research lends support to the Ontario prevention system’s focus on developing leading organizational indicators, says Amick. Leading indicators are measures that describe the effectiveness of workplace practices before injuries, illnesses and disability occur.  

For more information, see the plenary presentation at: www.iwh.on.ca/plenaries/2011-jan-18.  

Source: At Work, Issue 65, Summer 2011: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto