Threading the needle (Part 1) — tips for managing RTW for injured or ill workers

Lauren Finestone

Safework Australia's new guide helps supervisors in small and medium businesses tread the tricky path of managing RTW for ill or injured workers.

It can be tricky for a supervisor or manager in a small or medium business to manage the RTW processes for ill or injured employees. How do you balance what's best for your business with what's best for your workers? 

A new guide from Safe Work Australia has some simple tips to ensure a successful return to work for everyone. 

Here’s a summary of what you can do when the worker is first ill or injured and while they’re away from work.

What to do when the worker is first injured or ill 

Staying in touch with your workers during their recovery makes a huge difference to their RTW and overall well-being, may save your business money and sends a positive message to your employees.

Tips for staying in touch 
  • Check in with your injured or ill worker as soon as you discover they’re away from work. 
  • Research shows that a worker who simply gets a phone call or a text message in the first few days is twice as likely to come back to work without needing more time off than those who were contacted after 2 weeks. 
Tips for changing the workplace or work duties 
  • Make immediate changes to ensure a safe and healthy working environment.
  • Take steps to make sure similar incidents can’t happen again. 
Mental health tips  

Contacting your worker as soon as you can is even more important for someone who is away due to a psychological injury. 

You don’t need to be their counsellor! Just let them know their return to good mental health is the priority and that you are available to support them — even if that’s just a chat. 

Conversation starters

Keep the conversation simple and positive:

  • Ask how they are and show genuine care and concern. 
  • Ask open-ended questions that show you care — for example, ‘How are you feeling generally? ‘Are you getting the help you need?’ 
  • Let them guide the direction of the conversation as much as possible. 
  • Workers can sometimes feel that their injury or illness is being questioned — don’t focus on aspects of the injury or illness when you first contact them. 
Other tips
  • Take notes on what you talked about so you don’t have to rely on your memory later. 
  • Share them with your worker to give them a chance to add anything you missed. 
  • Make a plan to keep in touch — for example, ask ‘How often would you like me to check in?’ ‘Do you prefer phone or text?’ 
  • You can put reminders in your phone or calendar to contact the worker.
While they are away from work 
Talk to the team

It’s ok to have different reactions to a co-worker’s absence, from concern about their colleague to stress about what it will mean for the rest of the team. 

Keep in regular contact with your worker. And after checking with your worker, include the rest of the team too:

  • Keep conversations between you and the worker confidential to build trust. 
  • Let them know their colleague will be away and only share information the worker is comfortable with. 
  • Remind the team it’s a breach of privacy to discuss the worker’s medical information with others without their consent. 
  • Acknowledge that the team will be affected by the worker’s absence. Uncertainty about how the worker is going and when they’ll return can be stressful or upsetting for everyone. 
  • Work together to manage any extra workload. For example, you might say, ‘I know that the uncertainty is hard. John will be away for at least another week. Let’s talk about how to manage the extra work and how I can support you’ 
  • Work with the team to plan suitable duties for the returning worker. 
  • Workers with psychological injuries may not have physical symptoms and this can lead to stigma and scepticism. This makes it even more important that you have the team’s support to help everyone adjust as the worker gradually returns to their regular duties. 
Tips for changing the workplace or work duties 

The ‘suitable duties guide’ on page 12-15 will help you think about ways to change the workplace or the worker’s work duties to help them gradually RTW. 

Communicate this to their health care professionals so an appropriate return to work program can be developed. 

Mental health tips  

Mental illness, psychological injury and medications can affect people differently. Don’t make assumptions. Instead, ask your worker ‘what does that mean for you?’ 

Conversation starters for staying in touch
  • Make it clear that their return to good health is the priority. You can ask: ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What can I do to help you feel supported?’ ‘Your physical and mental health comes first. We can talk about work later, when you’re ready’. 
  • The worker might also like to hear about what’s happening in the business while they’re  away. 
  • Tell them that while you plan to check in from time to time, you don’t want to put pressure on them to talk about the return to work process if they don’t feel up to it. 
  • Let them know about the free and independent support services they can access.
  • Ask them what they’re comfortable sharing with the team. You might say: ‘The team is worried about you and hopes you feel better soon! What would you like me to tell them about why you are away from work?” 

Part 2 of this summary looks at tips for when the worker prepares to, and then does, return to work.

Published 14 February, 2023 | Updated 28 February, 2023