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RTWMatters team

What is optimism? How is it good for health? When is it wise, in professional life, to get your grin on?

WorkSafe Victoria has a beautiful slogan for its return to work initiatives: “Return to work, return to life”. This slogan encapsulates everything that is inspiring about the field. The sense of possibilities. The new beginnings. The challenges met and overcome.

In the first of a two part series on the uses and abuses of optimism, we focus on the positives.

Optimism is the tendency to take a favourable or hopeful view of the future. It is a key component of many RTW-enhancing personal qualities, including emotional resilience and self efficacy.

Moreover, optimism actually improves health and wellbeing. According to, optimism:

  • Reduces the sense of helplessness that tends to set in when people feel out of control, and motivates people to take constructive action they otherwise would not bother with.
  • Makes it possible to believe that bad situations can improve, and motivates people to change those bad situations (e.g., to stick to health regimens and to seek health advice, and also to address life problems early on before they spiral out of control). By nipping problems in the bud before they become entrenched, optimists end up (on average) having to solve fewer difficult life problems than do pessimists.
  • Improves a person's ability to develop friendships and supportive relationships because it motivates people to think that other people will like them. Having friends and social supports helps reduce people's risk for disease, particularly the recurrence of chronic disorders.
  • Affects the body at a physical level by influencing the immune system. Optimists actually catch fewer contagious disease than pessimists. People who are habitually pessimistic tend to have lower immune activity than people who are optimistic. This is true regardless of physical health or temporary emotional states.

As these evidence-based observations demonstrate, optimism is a very useful inclusion in the return to work / absence management toolbox.  

Scientists don’t really know what makes some people prone to optimism, but the consensus seems to be that there is an interaction between biological and environmental factors. Some people might find it a bit harder to be optimistic than others, but as any Buddhist will tell you, optimism can be cultivated.

Therefore it makes sense that the work environment, and the culture around injury management, will influence how optimistically people face injury and illness. (For more on this concept, read Anna Kelsey-Sugg's article, "Getting happier, working better".)

How optimistic are your injury management systems? For example:

  • Do line managers see RTW as a drain on time, effort and the bottom line, or as an opportunity to maintain productivity, save money and improve company culture and corporate image?
  • Do you assume that particular claims are inevitably going to be drawn out and difficult?
  • Are RTW successes celebrated?
  • What’s the collective response when things don’t go according to plan?

RTW professionals are often the face of RTW in their organisation. You might not have the clout of the Chief Financial Officer, but you do exert influence over how supervisors, line managers and workers view RTW. Similarly to WorkSafe Victoria, part of your job is to “sell” RTW. How can you best do that? observes that, in “achievement” based situations—meetings with the senior management, company-wide campaigns—boundless optimism is a good option.

(There are other situations in which it makes more sense to take a cautious approach. We cover some of these situations in Part Two, which looks at potential abuses of optimism.)

In our view, “Return to work, return to life” works as a slogan because it presents an optimistic vision for a future beyond the limitations that injury and illness may impose. It has the potential to be effective as a motivational tool because it:

  • Gives the individual something to work towards;
  • Focuses on a goal that the worker in question is likely to find inspiring rather than an organisational goal, such as productivity;
  • Represents that goal as something that it is possible to attain; and
  • Gives credence to this possibility, via links to first-hand accounts of people who have returned to work, and returned to life.

The first step towards coping with a difficult situation is taken when an individual believes that they can cope with that situation; when, in other words, they indulge in optimism. This is true for the people who work around you, and it is also true for you.