A return to work may not mean a full recovery

Published: April 10, 2008

When workers return to work after an injury, it may not mean that they have fully recovered, a new Institute for Work & Health study suggests. Researchers interviewed 632 workers with lost-time claims for work-related musculoskeletal injuries of the back or upper body. These workers provided information about their physical and mental health, workplaces, health-care providers and insurers at one month and six months after their injury.

Three categories of workers were identified at one month: workers who had a sustained first return to work, workers who returned to work but injury symptoms had recurred, and workers who did not return to work over the course of the follow-up. (A sustained return to work means workers remained at work after their return.)

At six months after injury, 38 per cent of workers who had attempted a return to work reported at least one recurrent work absence, says Dr. Ute Bültmann, a researcher from the Netherlands who took part in this study during a work placement at the Institute. This finding is consistent with previous research that suggests that a first return to work does not translate into a complete recovery from a musculoskeletal disorder. The results of this study were published in the journal, Quality of Life Research last year.

Workers who had a sustained first return to work reported better health and fewer work limitations than other workers. However, even 27 per cent of workers with a sustained return to work at the one-month interview had experienced a work absence by the six-month interview, notes Bültmann.

Depressive symptoms in workers

Additionally, researchers found high levels of depressive symptoms in all injured workers, and especially in those with a recurrence of work absence and those who did not return to work. This finding is in line with earlier studies that show that depressive symptoms are common in MSK-injured workers. This highlights the need to address and examine the mental health of workers who suffer a workplace injury, notes Bültmann.

An epidemiologist and associate professor at the University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Bültmann was involved in this study while she was a researcher in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Work Disability Prevention Strategic Training Program. Funded by the CIHR, it is the first training initiative of its kind to focus on a transdisciplinary approach for the prevention of work disability. Several Institute scientists serve as mentors and advisors in this program. Bültmann was recently appointed an IWH Adjunct Scientist. She plans to visit in the fall of 2008 to collaborate on additional projects.