Workplace injuries can vary from minor to near death with varying degrees of medical care and rehabilitation required. Just as the injuries are different so too is workplace rehabilitation and process of returning to work safely.
What is Workplace Rehabilitation?
Workplace rehabilitation is the process of assisting someone to return to work after sustaining an injury. Part of the rehabilitation process may involve developing a program that allows them to return to duties that are suitable during the recovery period or return to their role over time. This may include gradually returning to them to their pre-injury role, or in some cases training to gain new skills or assistance. The type of return to work program will depend on the type of injury and the workers role.
Under the Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013, employers are responsible for ensuring injured workers have the rehabilitation they need through workers’ compensation. High-quality rehabilitation benefits the worker and their employer.
Workplace Injury Rehabilitation Challenges
There are many parties involved in the rehabilitation of an injured worker – the treating doctor/s and health providers, insurance company, employer and the rehabilitation provider. Many challenges can occur throughout the patient’s recovery but here are three common ones.
#1 The Right Treatment Early On
What many workers injured in the workplace don’t realise is the importance of early assessment and treatment. The shock of sustaining an injury or not understanding its severity can result in delayed evaluation and treatment. In the past, it was thought that the complete rest of an injury was best recovery. Many still intuitively feel that lots of rest and to stay away from work is the best treatment for all injuries. This might work for infections like coughs and colds, but research now shows that fast mobilisation of physical injuries and returning the employee to work as soon as possible provides the best chance of recovery. Apart from broken bones and joint sprains, most injured areas should be mobilised early to reduce pain and symptoms. Psychological injuries need the same level of assessment, treatment and fast re-engagement back into the workplace. This can be hard, when sometimes the employee feels work has contributed towards their injury, or an employer is unfamiliar supporting their psychological needs.
Managing the Issue: Reassuring and educating the patient that they can mobilise a physical injury soon after it occurs is key to effective early treatment. Workers with psychological injuries need to engage with treatment as early on as possible (there is usually a considerable lead in time for psychological injuries before a worker admits to a problem). Failure to treat psychological injuries can result in an increase of negative symptoms. Patients may feel they are being rushed back to work due to pressure from the workers’ compensation insurer or employer. To overcome this, rehabilitation providers need to explain the research behind the reasons for prompt treatment and fully explain the health benefits of good work for both physical and psychological aspects of an injury.
#2 Mental Health Issues
Injured workers with a physical injury often struggle with more than just the injury itself. Depression can follow a workplace injury, particularly if a worker is off work for an extended period of time.
Someone who is used to getting up each day to fulfil a role no longer has a routine, a sense of purpose and can miss the social interactions with colleagues and clients. Workers can feel isolated and lonely recovering at home on their own. An injury may also impact their social life. An injured worker who played sport before may have pulled out of their team and be restricted from going out with friends or family or they may feel embarrassed to go out and be seen, when the community knows they are of work with an injury.
Depending on the injury, they may not be able to do everything for themselves and rely on other people to help with housework and personal care. An injured person may also feel like they aren’t adequately supported by friends and family. They may even worry that others see them as a malingerer who should toughen up and get back to work. Those with a psychological injury may suffer the stigma that still exists with mental health issues. Feelings of anxiety, low confidence and depression can exacerbate as isolation increases, which in turn feeds the psychological injury.
Managing the Issue: Workplace rehabilitation providers need to remember an injured worker’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. At appointments, health workers should ask how their patient is coping with the boredom and daily living activities as well as pain. They need to find out if they have a support network to help with the housework as well as social interaction and consider these as part of a rehabilitation plan. A depressed injured worker often takes longer to recover and return to work as they may not do the exercises or become anxious about their return the longer they are off. Rehabilitation workers should encourage patients to resume parts of their normal life as quickly as possible. A good provider will create a holistic program with a worker that includes community-based exercise (not everyone likes gyms and it’s not always practical!)
Adjustment to injury can take its toll and if a health professional feels an injured worker is depressed, they should refer them to back to their GP or psychologist and make sure they receive adequate support and treatment.
#3 Returning to Work in Current Job Role
In most cases, a worker with an injury can return to the same duties they undertook at work before the accident. However, to achieve this a careful and medically appropriate program must be negotiated with the workers medical practitioners, the worker themselves and their employer. In some cases, regardless of treatment and rehabilitation, a role may no longer be suitable due to long term medical restrictions, limited mobility, ongoing pain, or the risk of re-injury.
Managing the Issue: All employees should be informed of their employer’s workplace rehabilitation policy and procedures. These should outline what an employee should do if they sustain an injury and the expectations that they will return to work on suitable duties as soon as they are medically fit to do so.
To understand the role and duties involved, a rehabilitation provider may need to undertake a worksite assessment. The assessment will look at the type of tasks, the equipment used, and the specific setup of their workplace (physical and/or sedentary). A decision can then be made as to what duties are suitable to return to and if any modifications are needed. The provider can then assist the employer and injured employee to get ready for their return to work.
Legislation and insurance schemes differ from state to state and so Workplace Rehabilitation Providers must be registered in each jurisdiction. If you require a rehabilitation provider, check that they are registered in your area
If your organisation needs a rehabilitation provider or workplace assessment completed, call PeopleSense by Altius on 1300 307 912 or Rehabilitation Services by Altius on 1300 782 183 or contact us online.