The phrase “return to work” entered the daily lexicon in a way we couldn’t have expected a few years ago, often associated with returning to physical offices or CBDs. But, within workplace rehabilitation, the term has a different meaning – one that leaders will need to revisit as we contemplate what post-pandemic workplaces can and should be. Occupational therapist and University of Sydney researcher Joanne Lewis explains how leaders can support employees after illness or injury.
Ever since some organisations cautiously started reopening offices in Australia and New Zealand, return-to-work challenges have dominated broader conversations. More attention than ever has been given to the logistical and safety questions associated with returning to workplaces post-COVID, typically with an unprecedented emphasis on leading with empathy and supporting employee health and wellbeing.
The hope is that this emphasis will carry over to how we think about employees returning to work after illness or injury. While nearly all of us share the bond of the pandemic’s impacts on our working lives, some are also dealing with the unique challenges that come with returning to work after – or during – the management of a serious medical condition.
Still, even when employers passionately want to support their people during these moments, it can be difficult to provide informed assistance. There can be gaps between private and public health that are tricky to navigate, along with hard questions about how certain measures are funded or what boundaries should look like. But the benefits of getting it right are considerable.
Here’s what leaders should know.
Because of financial and legal obligations, businesses are often well-versed in their obligations when injuries or illnesses are sustained at work. But for employees who have experienced illness or injury not related to work, the situation can be more complex, often due to fluctuating symptoms and an uncertain prognosis. Employees will have rights under disability discrimination and employment law but these need to be balanced with employer’s ability to make modifications and accommodations.
Unlike workers compensation, there are no financial penalties for not supporting the workplace rehabilitation of ill workers. There are, however, financial implications associated with recruitment, training and loss of productivity. Harder to calculate monetarily – but possibly more critical – is the potential loss of cultural and knowledge capital. But when an organisation supports employees with serious illness this can help build team morale, encourage employee and client loyalty and foster a positive public image of the business.
Helping an employee to return to work isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s an opportunity for businesses to walk their talk in a way that aligns with their culture. But if you’re reading this, you probably already want to support your colleagues the best way you can. So let’s talk about the practical necessities of that support.
Everyone’s experience of illness is unique and every illness has its own particular challenges. So while a blanket approach to policy might be necessary, supporting individuals won’t be one-size-fits-all.
For example, women who’ve experienced breast cancer may have upper limb issues that require a physical change to a workspace so the arm can be better supported. However, breast cancer and its treatment, like many other serious illnesses, has other implications impacting cognitive and psychological function, complicated by possible fatigue, changes in body temperature, swelling, nausea, breathlessness and numbness in hands and feet.
When rehabilitation is complex, it’s helpful to break down the employee's position into their duties and tasks and look at these components to see where flexibility, modifications and adjustments can be accommodated. This is often the work of occupational therapists like myself, but employers need to be a part of that process. The gap between health systems and allied health professionals can be a challenge, but just be aware that you don’t have to be equipped to manage every intricate detail of someone’s health condition – instead, you might want to reach out to an allied health professional. Larger businesses sometimes have their own, but it’s good to be aware that you may need to answer some funding questions, whether that’s through an insurer or your own business.
Another important aspect for employers to be aware of is the psycho-social element of serious illness. Sometimes the employee will be struggling cognitively as well as physically and that needs to be taken into account. Moreover, there might be an ongoing fear around recurrence of illness that can be a heavy burden to carry and may play a part in work performance.
What you want to do is build success, rather than approaching the situation with an assumption that they’ll immediately go back to pre-injury or illness levels of productivity.
It’s a big ask for employers to be across all of this. It can be confronting, confusing and hard to know where to begin. Knowing that you can reach out to health professionals for assistance is important, and open communication around the return to work plan is critical.
This is why leaders and managers are so vital to the return to work process. Formal policy is necessarily broad, but managers are often in the best position to help tailor policies for individual needs and to stay on top of day-to-day challenges.
Not only do they act as key points of contact in the practical application of the return to work program – such as ensuring people can get to appointments without additional stress or burdens – but managers are also instrumental in understanding and communicating about individual needs. For instance, will the person need to do treatment or therapy that makes it difficult to work on those days? If they have a set appointment schedule, you can both agree to take those days off the calendar.
Clear and frank communication with the employee regarding their privacy is another big factor. Do they want everyone to know about their experience? Do they only want certain people to know certain details? Ongoing communication with the employee is essential to the return to work process, with the understanding that giving them time and space to recover and adjust is part of that process.
Lastly, avoid jumping on the performance management train as soon as things don’t appear to be progressing as you expect or want. Think about the bigger picture – have we done everything we can to support this person? Have we given them the opportunity to communicate what does and doesn’t work for them? Would a health professional be the best person to come in and help the employee get back into work?
One of the few silver linings of COVID-19 has been the opportunity for employers to trust their employees more, to know that their employees are doing as much as they can, even if they aren’t in the office. This increased confidence and the growing acceptance of flexible work conditions could play an important role in return to work programs in the future.
Either way, a supportive employer is hands-down the most important part of a successful return to work after illness or injury. With open communication and collaboration on a plan that works for everyone, employers can better meet the ethical, professional and business imperatives to support a meaningful return to work.
Find out more about how you can foster a workplace culture where wellbeing is a priority in the Leader’s Guide to Employee Wellbeing.