Absenteeism due to injury and illness can cost a business a lot of money in sick-leave benefits and overtime payments for available employees. In addition, having a smaller pool of employees available to complete work increases the stress and strain on those individuals available to work, and may increase their risk of musculoskeletal or psychological injury. Because of this, a lot of businesses encourage workers to come back to work as soon as possible after a non-work related injury or illness. Additionally, employees will often be eager to return to work early after a non-work related injury or illness. Generally speaking this is also encouraged by government policy and research into employee well-being. However, there are risks involved with bringing employees back too early.

Once an employee is back in the workplace and completing work, they are covered by workplace insurance. Any aggravation of this injury or illness that subsequently occurs at work will normally be covered under these policies, and employees will have a right to claim for workers compensation, even if they have a pre-existing condition. So how can employers find the balance between returning employees to the workplace in a timely manner to decrease costs and improve productivity, whilst limiting the risk of injury and the workplaces’ liability?

One strategy is to ask returning employees to provide medical documentation that states they have suitably recovered from their injury or illness and are safe to perform their pre-injury duties. Where doubt remains regarding the employees ability to safely undertake the inherent requirements of their job, employers can direct the employee to a medical practitioner of the employer’s choosing for an opinion. An article by Murphy (2014) helps explain this process in more detail and provides an insight as to the legal aspects of this process. They suggest that employers have a responsibility to ensure safe systems of work and a duty of care to all those on their worksite. Thus, it may be reasonable to request a medical opinion regarding an employee’s capacity to ensure they can safely perform the inherent requirements and demands of their job.

Another strategy that can be utilised, and may be used concomitantly to the above, is to provide the employee with a graduated return to work program. Although this strategy is more commonly used for work-related and workers’ compensation injuries, employers are using these plans more regularly to safely return employees to the workplace after sustaining a non-work related injury or illness. The benefits of allowing employees to return work earlier include increased employee satisfaction, improved productivity, and reduced sick-leave costs. It may help to limit liability if employees  aggravate or exacerbate previous injuries when returning to the workplace. A heuristic applied by a number of employers when determining whether to offer suitable duties to an employee with a non-work related injury or illness is the “80% rule”. The basic principle suggests that if an employee has the capacity to complete 80% of their inherent job requirements, the employer aids their return to work via a suitable duties plan, clearly indicating what duties can and cannot be performed. This allows everyone involved with the employee to understand their work capacity and facilitates a smooth transition back into the work place.

The upside of employing a strategy like this is that it encourages open and honest communication between employees and employers about their non-work related injuries. This can be very hard to control for, and thus encouraging a collaborative, supportive and health conscious culture in the workplace is important. Allowing employees to gradually return to work after non-work related injury and illness is one way to foster this positive culture. The use of onsite Physiotherapy services may encourage employees to more readily communicate about their non-work related injury, and will allow the employer to understand an employee’s capacity more accurately.

The NSW government provides an easy to follow algorithm for managing the return to work process for employees with non-work related injuries and illness.

Procedures for non-work related injuries

Source – NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet. (2010) Procedures for managing non-work related injuries or health conditions. Public Sector Workforce; Sydney, NSW.

Please note: It should be emphasised that the process and the strategies discussed are applicable to non-work related cases. Employers have different and additional responsibilities regarding work-related and compensable injuries.