Examining supervisor competencies and return to work

Dr Mary Wyatt

Competencies supervisors need to affect positive RTW outcomes for workers suffering musculoskeletal and mental health conditions.

Injured workers perceive their supervisors as integral to the return to work process. While their participation is vital to successful RTW outcomes, many supervisors receive little or no competency-based training on how to better administer to the needs of injured workers returning to work.

A recent study titled "Supervisor Competencies for Supporting Return to Work: A Mixed-Methods Study" published April 2014 sought to identify the competencies that supervisors need to affect positive RTW outcomes for workers suffering musculoskeletal conditions (MSD) and mental health conditions (MHC).

The study involved setting up focus groups with participants pulled from five Australian industries. Participants were asked to identify what knowledge, skills and personality traits supervisors should have to better support injured workers in returning to work. To develop a competency model, featuring the top ten competencies, stakeholders in the RTW process were polled on what competencies they thought were important.

The study identified the top ten competencies as follows:

  • Managing conflict as it arises
  • Being honest
  • Communicating sensitive information
  • Demonstrating fairness
  • Understanding a supervisor's legal obligations
  • Respecting privacy and confidentiality
  • Knowing the specifics of the worker's tasks and the workload involved
  • Understanding what an injured worker can and cannot do
  • Speaking in a respectful manner
  • Managing how information about a worker's condition is disclosed to others

Some competencies are personal attributes while others involve knowledge of the RTW process and how to implement and monitor a RTW plan. While this competency model is generic to the supervision of RTW plans for workers with either musculoskeletal conditions or mental health conditions, managing privacy is specific to the management of workers with mental health conditions.

A supervisor should be able to interpret medical restrictions mandated by the worker's treating doctor and modify the job descriptions, taking into account the requirements of the job, including the workload.

The ability to communicate effectively with a worker returning to work involves being respectful of the worker's situation and circumstances. A supervisor should be able to deliver sensitive information and know how to compartmentalise information especially as it relates to the worker's privacy.

Conflict is bound to arise when co-workers take issue with having to pick up the perceived slack for someone else, especially in mental health cases, where the effects are largely invisible. A supervisor must be able to balance the needs of a recovering team member with the needs of the other workers on the team.

The picture below, taken from the study, depicts the supervisor competencies in groups, and infers that some competencies can be taught.  Other competencies are personal attributes or behaviours and can be fostered in the workplace.

The study revealed that there are more differences than there are similarities when it comes to comparing the RTW process for mental health conditions versus musculoskeletal conditions. When it comes to mental health conditions, the particular challenges include the length of recovery and the unpredictable nature of the recovery.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) an estimated 18% of Australian adults currently suffer some form of mental illness. Mental health conditions rank third behind cancer and heart disease in terms of disease burden in Australia. Some 1.8 million workers suffer from stress-related mental health conditions (ABS) and Safe Work Australia has reported a continuing upward trend in stress-related claims.

Supervising a worker suffering a mental health condition can feel like negotiating a minefield in the dark. Because of the built-in social stigma that comes with mental health conditions, supervisors must double down to ensure a worker's privacy.

Across the board, respondents identified empathy as a necessary trait, especially with workers returning to work from a mental health absence.

But empathic communication is not a skill common to all supervisors.

A significant aspect of honest communication and communication overall is the effective use body language. A supervisor who fails to engage a worker by looking that person in the eye may come off as being dishonest. A supervisor conveying a positive outlook must smile, use open body language, and modify his or her tone of voice.

Communicating empathy requires the ability to communicate positive emotions. This is expected of customer service personnel that regularly engage directly with the public. In service fields, communicating empathy is essential to building rapport quickly with a client or customer.

However, in the manufacturing and resources sectors, the ability to communicate positive emotions may not be valued as an essential skill, because manufacturing workers and supervisors rarely have direct contact with customers. Also in male-dominated spaces, empathy may be seen as a competency more commonly associated with stereotypical female jobs.

Because of the rise in mental health-related claims and the high incidence of mental health conditions generally, it only underscores the importance of competence-based training to ensure better return to work outcomes. While many of the competencies revealed in the study are generic to managerial roles, training should focus on how these are needed by a supervisor to build and maintain a healthy and effective relationship with the worker returning to work.

Published 21 April, 2014 | Updated 20 December, 2022