Role Summary: Supervisors

A. Richey

While the employee has the greatest influence over return to work outcomes, supervisor input is not far behind. Supervisors can make an enormous difference to the success of an employee’s return to work.

Although supervisors often feel unprepared and untrained when one of their employees is injured, there is a lot they can do to assist. 

It’s important for both the employee, and for the business.  Feel free to print this article and give it to supervisors in your organisation who are dealing with return to work (RTW).

  • Being at work retains the employee’s skills and knowledge.
  • Employees will recover faster following an injury if they have the support of the workplace.
  • It reduces the cost of low productivity.
  • The business won’t need to pay for the cost of recruiting and training new staff to cover the role of the injured worker.
  • Morale in the workplace is more positive as it shows other employees that the business cares about their wellbeing, and values their workers.
  • The organisation will gain a positive reputation.
  • The organisation will pay lower workers' compensation premiums.

Encourage employees to report problems early, and be responsive when an injury is reported. 

Acknowledge the injury report, and work with the employee to identify the next steps.

This includes: 

  • assisting the ill or injured worker to obtain appropriate medical care, 
  • coordinating the completion of an injury report, and 
  • working with the OH&S representative to arrange any modifications needed to ensure that another employee is not injured in the same way. 

If there is a RTW Coordinator in the workplace, contact them immediately upon receiving an injury report.

The estimated cost of sick leave or work injury is twice the employee’s daily rate of pay, so it is in the organisation’s best interest to prevent injuries from occurring wherever possible. 

It’s best for supervisors to avoid treating an injured employee with suspicion.  Provide the employee with clear and constructive advice on the system and processes which they need to follow.  Let them know about their rights and responsibilities in the return to work process.

The first conversation between a supervisor and an injured employee often ‘sets the scene’ for how the employee will feel about the injury, the workplace and their return to work. 

Try to be supportive and non-judgmental in conversations with the injured employee, including when discussing the employee with others involved in their return to work.

Where appropriate, keep in contact with the injured worker while they are recovering and make sure that they feel like they are part of a team. Provide them with information about meetings, training and work newsletters of updates. This will help them to feel as though they are still connected to the workplace.

Show genuine interest in the employee when talking to them post-injury. Ask about how their recovery is progressing and offer assistance as appropriate. Don’t put undue pressure on injured workers to return to work too fast.

Focus on what the worker CAN do rather than CAN’T do.

Given that the work previously done by the injured worker still needs to be completed, employers may also wish to look at employing additional staff to cover the workload. If this isn’t possible, employers might look at ways to thank the co-workers for their additional contributions. This could be financial compensation, but it could also be time in lieu or even just acknowledgement for their contribution.


When the employee is sufficiently recovered and looking to return to work, collaborate with them and where appropriate their treating practitioner, to identify appropriate duties and the development of a return to work plan. Remember that they don’t need to be 100% recovered in order to return to work – in fact just participating in the workplace has been shown to help improve recovery times.

Have a plan for the employee’s first day back on the job, and discuss the duties for the first day and the first week with them. If the supervisor is unable to greet the returning worker on the day, arrange for one of their close workmates to do so, and encourage the workers’ colleagues to provide support and a positive working environment.

Review the employee’s progress on the first day at the end of the first day. Make sure that the injured employee doesn’t push themselves too hard to early, and stay alert for signs of the injury recurring or flaring up.

Appropriate duties vary from case to case. It may be possible for the employee to resume their former role, their former role with modifications, or another job within the organisation. 

Return to work duties are an ongoing discussion. Regular meetings with the employee are useful to address employee concerns around duties, hours of work and shifts. Meetings with other members of the team including the RTW Coordinator or the Health and Safety Manager help to increase communication and collaboration, and keep them informed of any issues which may arise.

The supervisor may also help to address any ergonomic or health and safety issues while the employee is on modified duties, and as the employee’s condition improves, work with the employee to upgrade duties. This is commonly referred to as a graduated return to work.

The employee is encouraged to participate in the development of their return to work plan, with the supervisor listening and working with them to identify appropriate duties. The doctor and return to work coordinator may also contribute. 

As the employee’s return to work progresses, the supervisor may find it useful to check in with them regularly to see how they are coping and to address any concerns they may have. 

If the employee is not making progress, try to identify the contributing factors. These might include the job being unsuitable, a lack of co-worker support, fear of re-injury, blame and resentment, or other personal or home-related matters.

An important part of the supervisor’s role is to manage and respect the privacy issues surrounding the employee’s injury. This includes medical and other confidential information received, as well as an understanding of privacy issues around disclose, such as letting the employee’s co-workers know about the injury and restrictions. Knowing the legal obligations as a supervisor is also advisable.

Supervisors need to be able to deliver sensitive information honestly, fairly and justly, including information which the injured worker doesn’t want to hear. The ability to manage conflict and communicate in a respectful and appropriate way is also vital.

The employer has legal obligations to support return to work in Australia. It’s the role of the Return to Work Coordinator to assist organisations meet these obligations. Employers who breach their return to work obligations risk prosecution and financial penalties.