Role Summary: Co-workers

A. Richey

An injured individual who feels supported and confident with work colleagues has a better return to work outcome. This is a fact.

In this context, co-workers certainly have a significant role to play in the employee’s reintegration into the workplace following an injury or illness.


When an employee is injured, the burden of their work often falls on other employees, in addition to fulfilling their own tasks. This may have a negative impact on their work performance or the team’s work performance. The situation can cause annoyance, particularly in individualistic and competitive work environments. While employers may avoid this problem through arranging for extra staff to cover the work, this isn’t always possible.

Research has shown that co-workers sometimes object to the additional work when they have had a strained relationship with the injured worker, or when they don’t believe the injury. Less sympathy also tends to be offered when workers have an extended time off work, when light duties are further reduced or are not productive, or when an employee is new or relatively young.

When broken down in this way, co-workers may be able to easily identify the cause of their resentment and take steps to counteract it.

Research shows that in supportive and healthy workplaces, people are frequently willing to pitch in and do what they can. 

There is much to be gained through helping out. In addition to assisting others and gaining a sense of personal satisfaction, co-workers may also learn new skills and gain a broader understanding of the workplace. 


When an employee is away from work through illness or injury, there is often an expectation that the employee’s co-workers should cover their duties without additional compensation. This can create challenges, but co-workers should remember that it’s not the injured worker’s fault. 

Providing support for employees on their return to work is vital. Offer assistance, moral support and ongoing communication, as well as assisting the supervisor by streamlining the workflow. 

Co-workers should avoid gossip about people on return to work programs as this can cause significant negative impacts.  Stories of the injury tend to travel ‘on the grapevine.’ This information is often incorrect and repetition is best avoided.

People on return to work programs are often sensitive about their situation. Comments about a person's work program may be intended to be humorous, but are frequently taken to heart by the employee, causing upsets and jeopardising return to work.

Victim-blaming, harassment and isolation create a hostile environment for injured workers. Lack of understanding alienates the worker with the injury.  

If staff are making off hand comments, speak directly with them. Be open, let them know people with an injury often feel they are letting the team down, and worry they will be treated differently. Let co-workers know that they’d be in the same boat with an injury.  


When injured employees have the support of their co-workers, they are much more likely to have a successful return to work. Lack of support tends to lead to longer work absences and problems in RTW.

When co-workers treat employees returning from injury with respect, and avoid questioning the credibility of their injuries, workers do better. Research shows that assistance is more likely to be offered if the injury is visible and severe, however invisible injuries can be equally challenging and equally valid.

The supervisor is best placed to influence co-workers.  

With the workers permission they can provide a broad picture of the worker’s needs on return to work, eg. Joe will need help with lifting as he has hurt his back. He’s keen to be back at work, so let’s see what we can do to help him out. 

Without the worker’s permission, the supervisor can let co-workers know about return to work, but ought to avoid talking about the worker’s medical condition. Eg. Joe’s coming back to work on Monday, he’s keen to be pitching but will need support when he gets back to work as he’s not yet fully fit.