The research and analysis behind our new training package for supervisors

Dr Mary Wyatt

Dr Wyatt describes the six years of research, reflection and experimentation that have gone into RTWMatters' new hybrid training package for supervisors.

I’ve been thinking about the role supervisors play in return to work for many years.


We know that attitudes in the workplace strongly influence whether an individual returns to work. When employees say that their employer has responded in a supportive manner to their report of injury, they are 40% more likely to return to work.


Yet training and engaging key workplace figures remains uncommon. Line managers and supervisors, who should be the first to offer support to injured workers, often lack the skills and knowledge to do so.


About six years ago, we at RTWMatters began thinking seriously about how we could help close the skills and knowledge gap that is common amongst supervisors. We were convinced by evidence showing that this would make a real difference in return to work outcomes.


Dr William Shaw is an excellent North American researcher. Bill and his co-researchers did a deep dive into the ins and outs of supervisor training, producing a series of studies. 


First, they undertook a needs assessment of disability corporate practices among supervisors and managers.  The needs assessment included an anonymous survey of management practices relating to return to work, as well as individual interviews with employees and supervisors, exploring how they cared for workers who had an injury. 


Next a series of objectives was developed, outlining how supervisors can better support workers and promote return to work.


From these objectives, the researchers drew the following key training topics:

  • Soft skills, such as listening and communication;
  • Developing trust and responsiveness;
  • Reintegrating the employee with an injury back into the workplace;
  • Understanding the challenges workers with an injury face; and
  • Having a basic understanding of ergonomics so that work activities can be modified to support recovery at work.

After participating in the training, supervisors said they were more confident managing work injury. There was also a significant reduction in claims and lost time to injury. Additional research backs up these findings.

I've been part of a similar needs assessment study in Australia. Venerina Johnston led a study to identify supervisor training needs in Australia. Her evaluation dealt with both musculoskeletal problems and mental health issues.

Supervisors from high claim industries were interviewed about the challenges they face and the strategies they find helpful or unhelpful.  They were asked for their input on relevant content and training methods.


Key return to work competencies were identified and feedback was sought from representatives of various groups who work in the field, for example RTW Coordinators. 


The project identified 11 competency areas for supervisors that facilitate RTW for injured workers.


Importantly, supervisors and RTW professionals agreed that supervisors needed a comprehensive training program educating them in the knowledge, skills and behaviours that support return to work.


In relation to musculoskeletal conditions the report recommended:


  • Employers should explicitly recognise the supervisor’s role in return to work, and organisational policies should clearly delineate the supervisor’s obligations and role boundaries.
  • A comprehensive, face-to-face return-to-work training program should be provided to supervisors in high-claims industries early in their tenure, with periodic update sessions offered, focusing on competencies from all domains – knowledge, skills, and behaviours.
  • Face-to-face training for supervisors should be supplemented with access to information through a return-to-work website or other online resources, fact sheets, and by keeping policies and procedures current.
  • Support mechanisms and resource staff, such as in-house or external rehabilitation professionals, should be clearly identified and easily accessible to supervisors for informational needs as well as support for themselves. Smaller organisations without in-house rehabilitation staff could work with insurers to provide this expertise for their supervisors.
  • The importance of communication between the supervisor, rehabilitation professionals, and injured worker during the recovery and return to work phases cannot be over-emphasised. The supervisor’s knowledge of the job and job demands is essential for planning return to work, and he or she should be involved at all stages of the process.


How can these research findings be translated into action in the workplace?


There are many advantages of face-to-face training. However, there are also many difficulties. It is expensive and sometimes tricky to take line managers out of their normal work for training, particularly if the training is off-site.


We’ve previously produced a face-to-face training package for supervisors.  However, our experience has been that the person presenting such a program must have significant expertise in the topic, as well as that rare ability of being able to engage and lead a group of people.  This adds to the difficulty and expense, and is probably one reason why supervisor training in RTW has not become common practice. 


Since then, we've thought long and hard about the best approach to make supervisor training more mainstream.


Ultimately, this led us to develop our online supervisor training package as a hybrid model.  We’ve designed it to be facilitated in the workplace but, importantly, the facilitator doesn’t need to be an experienced trainer or an expert in every facet of work injury.  In fact, we think the RTW Coordinator is the best person for the job. 


RTW Coordinators tell us that influencing others in their organisation is one of the most challenging parts of their job. In our reader surveys it even compares with the difficulty of dealing with doctors!


But there’s a huge pay-off for RTW Coordinators who do manage to influence the way supervisors manage workplace injury. When supervisors are helpful and engaged with the day-to-day difficulties of RTW, the job of the RTW Coordinator is made easier and more satisfying. The coordinator is freed up to spend their time on proactive coordination, such as planning and implementing systems.


With all this in mind, we’ve developed a training package that allows the RTW Coordinator to gather and lead a group of supervisors, without the pressure of presenting the content themselves. The coordinator arranges the training sessions, brings the group together, and runs the online modules – primarily video presentations conducted by an Occupational Physician.  The RTW coordinator then leads a discussion about the case study included at the end of every module. Case studies are important because they prompt discussion and help bed down the material. There’s also the opportunity for the RTW coordinator to modify the case study, so it reflects the specific industry / workplace at hand.


The hybrid model trains supervisors in a cost-effective manner, allowing them to stay in the workplace. It provides the RTW Coordinator with the opportunity to develop relationships, or deepen relationships, with supervisors.  The organisation’s particular policies, such as injury reporting methods, can be flagged through the case studies, increasing the relevance of the training. 


Here's a brief excerpt from Managing Injury and Supporting Return to Work: A Training Package for Supervisors...


For supervisor training to become common practice it needs to be flexible to fit in with various workplace needs. We’ve taken that into account. Our training program can be completed in a single day (six hours), over two half days, or even by completing one module per week or fortnight.


So far, so good. But we were still cognisant that getting a group together in one place at one time isn’t always practical. Small organisations and regional workplaces might struggle here. To deal with this barrier, we developed an alternative mode of delivery. In this model, supervisors complete the online training alone. Case studies are still included, but now the questions are presented in the form of an online quiz to test and consolidate learning.


It's been a long journey. At RTWMatters we do most things in-house. We're a small organisation with limited funds. And getting the training right hasn't been easy. Learning new software, developing the administrative background on an e-learning site, editing, and the coding have all required steep learning curves. We've worked hard, made multiple modifications, and tested the training package on a pilot group.


So it's with a sense of joy and trepidation we now launch the online supervisor training. We hope this will be useful for small, medium and large organisations.


Given all the additional resources we’ve used in the development of the training package, we can’t include it as part of your existing subscription. However, we’ve done our best to keep the pricing affordable for organisations of all sizes. Further information is available here.  


We recommend that return to work coordinators lead the charge and training supervisors in groups of 4 to 10, but the individual approach will still work well if assembling a group is impossible.


The course will be available late November, with a formal launch to follow in February 2019.

Published 16 November, 2018 | Updated 21 November, 2018