Threading the needle (Part 2) — tips for managing RTW for injured or ill workers

Lauren Finestone

Safework Australia has 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. Part 1 of our summary looked at tips for when the worker is first ill or injured and while they’re away from work.

In Part 2, the tips are about what you can do when the worker prepares to, and then does, return to work.

What to do as the worker prepares to return to work 

When your worker is improving, prepare to welcome them back gradually. 

Research shows that workers value their supervisors’ efforts to discuss changes that could be made to their workplace or duties for their safe return.

Also, people are more likely to recover from physical injury or illness when they stay active and are at work. 

Tips for staying in touch 

Talk to your worker about a gradual return to work. Focus on what they can do — see the ‘suitable duties guide’ on pages 12-15 for ideas.
Take time to understand what support they need. Flexible work arrangements and reduced hours, modified tasks and training opportunities can all be helpful. 

Tips for changing the workplace or work duties 

Health care professionals, your insurer or a workplace rehabilitation provider can help you with the medical management of the claim. 

Tell the worker about any changes you’ve made to the workplace to help prevent similar injuries and invite them to offer other suggestions. 
Be prepared to change plans and the support set up as their needs may change over the next weeks or months. 

Conversation starters

If you’ve been checking in with your worker regularly, you’ll have a sense of how ready they are to return to work. It’s ok to say: 

  • ‘We’d would love to have you back. Do you think we could pencil in a date?’ 
  • ‘I’d like to talk to you about how I can help you gradually and safely return to work’. 
  • ‘We can make this work even if you can’t do everything that you normally do’. 
    When they return to work 
Tips for staying in touch 

Set specific goals with your worker, and keep checking in with them regularly. They may need more support to start off with, and their recovery may not be a straight line so and it’s important to stay flexible.

Meet with the worker on their first day back. You can make their first few days back easier by:

  • being positive, while acknowledging the challenges of the injury or illness
  • taking time out together — for example, you and the team could have a coffee or lunch together
  • updating them about any important information or activities that might have happened while they were away.
  • being careful not to suggest that their absence was a burden on the team.
  • einforcing that you are there to support their recovery at work — for example, ‘We want you to be able to stay with us. My main aim is to support you to make that happen’. 
Things to do once the worker has settled back in 
  • Again, keep checking in. Set up regular meetings to dedicate time to review how things are going. 
  • Ask if the changes to their workplace or work have been helpful. Show your commitment to being flexible. 
  • Recognise how the worker has adapted to their new working arrangements, and celebrate when they achieve goals in their RTW plan. 
  • Talk about some realistic goals you can set to keep them at work and set timeframes and actions to meet those goals. 
  • Check in on their wellbeing — injury and illness often have secondary psychological impacts. You can ask questions like: ‘How have you been coping with the changes in your work life?’ ‘How can I support you?’ ‘What strategies can we put in place to ease the stresses of your injury or illness?’ 
  • Review and reset goals regularly. Talk about what has and hasn’t been working, and make adjustments if they’re needed.

Want more information?

See the full guide for more tips and information about:

  • how you can support workers who are recovering from psychological injuries like depression or mood disorders, anxiety disorders and PTSD
  • professionals who can help you with the workers’ compensation process
  • using the editable version of the guide to tailor it to your business, jurisdiction or industry
  • finding information about your responsibilities as a business when a worker is injured or becomes ill at work
  • how you can get support and take care of yourself as a supervisor — the return to work process can be stressful for you too. 

Small business owners can also access business specific support through Beyond Blue’s NewAccess mental health support program

Published 14 February, 2023 | Updated 28 February, 2023