Workplace program effective for challenging return-to-work cases

July 13, 2009 (Toronto, ON) — When workers and supervisors jointly identify and solve return-to-work barriers, absent workers with low-back pain get back to work earlier than would otherwise be the case. This is especially true for older workers and those who have previously been off sick, according to new research from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

The results suggest a lot of progress can be made helping injured workers return to their jobs with a good workplace-based intervention, especially among those workers usually considered challenging cases, says Dr. Ivan Steenstra, the IWH associate scientist who led the study. The study was published in the May 2009 issue of Spine (vol. 34, no. 12, pp. 1243-1249).

Steenstra’s findings are based on a study he began in the Netherlands and continued as a researcher at IWH. The study involved 196 workers who had been off work for two to six weeks due to low-back injury. The workers were randomly assigned into groups: those who took part in a workplace intervention and those who received “usual care.”

Those in the workplace program took part in a “participatory ergonomics” approach to returning to work. That is, the worker and supervisor, with the help of an occupational health professional or ergonomist, identified and solved return-to-work barriers together, and then implemented the solutions in the workplace. (Read more details about this workplace program.) Those who received “usual care” were under the care of an occupational health physician only.

Researchers compared the number of days the workers in each group were absent before returning to work. Only work-returns of four weeks or more, to the same job or a similar job at the same pay, were considered successful.

As reported in an earlier study, the workers who participated in the workplace program returned to work faster than those who received usual care only. They returned to work 30 days earlier, on average, and at only slightly higher cost.

Moreover, as reported in Spine last month, the workplace program was particularly effective among older workers and workers who had been previously off sick. Workers 44 years and over who took part in the program returned to work 2.5 times faster than workers of the same age in the usual-care group. Workers in the program who had been sick in the previous year returned to work 2.8 times faster than those who had been sick and received usual care. Factors such as gender, ability to function due to the injury, pain and heavy work did not make a difference to the effectiveness of the program.

There might be a tendency to not bother investing in older and previously sick workers because they’re considered too difficult to return to work, says Steenstra. But, according to this study, that’s the wrong way to think. A workplace program seems to work best among those often thought of as the hardest to return to work.

About the Institute for Work & Health

IWH is an independent, not-for-profit research organization that conducts and mobilizes research to support policy-makers, employers and workers in creating healthy, safe and inclusive work environments. The Institute provides practical and relevant findings and evidence-based products on the inter-relationships between work and health from worker, workplace and systems perspectives.

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