New tool opens dialogue on return-to-work issues

In recent years, the Institute for Work & Health’s Knowledge Transfer and Exchange department has made tool development a priority. We have mature research results from our scientists on several occupational health and safety issues. We need to translate this evidence so people can use it in their work, says Kathy MacDonald, a Knowledge Transfer Associate at the Institute. It is also important to include the people who will use the tool during its development.

One such area is return to work. Institute Scientists Dr. Renée-Louise Franche and Dr. Ellen MacEachen conducted a systematic review to determine what works best in workplace-based return to work. The results of this review were the basis for the Seven Principles for Successful Return to Work (see sidebar). We’re now taking these seven principles and developing a tool that can help occupational therapists communicate with employers around improving return-to-work programs, notes MacDonald.

Occupational therapists endorse idea

In 2006, Institute researchers presented the seven principles to a group of occupational therapists (OTs). These OTs were considered informal opinion leaders by their peers. This group, who form one of the Institute’s educationally-influential (EI) networks, discussed how the principles could be incorporated into their practice.

Following this discussion, the occupational therapists saw an opportunity to turn the seven principles into a tool that would benefit employers and OTs. Gabriele Wright, an occupational therapist who practices in the Guelph area, volunteered to sit on a working group to create the tool. Employers need to accommodate injured workers – it’s not only a legal requirement, to me, it’s the right way to go, she says. With this tool, we can take a potentially complex process of return to work and turn it into more digestible bites.

The working group was a “unique collaboration” with representatives from the Ontario Society of Occupational Therapists (OSOT), the Institute for Work & Health and occupational therapists in the field, says Lynn Shaw, a member of the group. All of the partners were very active and the College of Occupational Therapists of Ontario (COTO) was supportive of this project, notes Shaw, an assistant professor in the school of occupational therapy at the University of Western Ontario.

Working Together created

Over the next year, the group met several times to develop Working Together, the draft tool. This is an engagement tool that will help occupational therapists talk to employers about the questions they may have about the return-to-work process, explains MacDonald.

The working group structured the seven principles into four stages that were more intuitive to the way occupational therapists work. Then, they drafted questions employers might have around return to work and linked them to specific principles. Using OTs’ scope of practice and skill sets, each principle was then linked with specific actions an occupational therapist could offer the workplace to implement the principle.

Working Together is in a booklet format. It was designed so that an occupational therapist can pull out even one section and take it to the employer, says Shaw. That way, it’s more functional and it’s flexible.

Wright added, This tool will give teeth to my recommendations [to employers]. I’ve already referenced the seven principles’ research to support my suggestions.

Next steps

The working group has sent the draft tool out for feedback to the researchers, the larger EI network, and to OSOT and COTO. In addition, the tool will be evaluated to determine how the occupational therapists use it.

This project demonstrated that the occupational therapists are picking up well-grounded research and are moving forward with it, explains MacDonald. The Institute for Work & Health can only go so far with the research evidence– then the findings need to be used in the field to improve occupational health and safety issues.

Source: At Work, Issue 52, Spring 2008: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto