Juggling RTW and performance issues?

Gabrielle Lis

These practical industry insights will save you from having to grow an extra pair of arms...
The situation

A worker with ongoing performance issues is currently being ‘performance managed’. Unfortunately, they also have an injury or illness, and are in the process of lodging a compensation claim and attempting to return to work.

The difficulty

The manager / supervisor is faced with a quandary: should they continue performance managing the worker while also dealing with issues around return to work and workers’ compensation, or should problems with performance be put to one side while the claim is processed and return to work attempted?

There are several factors that may make this situation fraught with difficulties:

  • The supervisor / manager and / or the worker may believe that there is a link between the comp claim and the performance management process. On one hand, the worker may feel that they are being targeted for performance management because they have made a claim. On the other hand, the supervisor / manager may feel that the worker has made a workers’ compensation claim as a way of retaliating for being performance managed. Neither of these beliefs is conducive to the kind of supportive, cooperative environment in which RTW thrives.
  • A person suffering from injury or illness is unlikely to be at their best, either physically or emotionally. Often, people with health problems feel vulnerable and sensitive. Under such conditions, injured or ill workers may be more likely to go with their feelings and perceptions than to look at the facts.
  • Simultaneously managing return to work and performance issues may involve a confusing blurring of roles. As a key figure in RTW, the manager / supervisor needs to have an open, trusting relationship with the worker, and be seen as someone who offers help and support. However, as a ‘performance manager,’ this same person may be viewed with suspicion, resentment and dislike. This isn’t easy for either party!
The solutions  

Liv Russell, Workers Compensation Case Management Advisor with VirginBlue Airlines, told us that while this situation does present difficulties, it is definitely manageable. Liv’s advice for supervisors / managers in this situation is to…

Continue with performance management while offering RTW support. In most instances, a workers’ comp claim and the RTW process are no reason to wash your hands of performance issues. “We always encourage the manager – with the support of the HR Advisor for their department – to continue with the process of performance management, even if the worker also has a compensation claim.”

Liv also told us to keep an eye out for performance issues impacting on return to work. “In some cases performance management could possibly be a very positive thing for the injured worker. If performance issues are addressed and managed then appropriate support can be offered to the injured worker, for example additional training  and buddy work. Once performance-related barriers are identified, the RTW Coordinator and the injured worker can work together to overcome them.”

There are, however, exceptions to this rule: “There are circumstances when ‘performance management’ may not be appropriate such as claims involving an assault. In these circumstances, performance management may need to be delayed to a more appropriate time and undertaken in a sensitive manner.”

Don’t look for an agenda. Leave it up to the insurer to decide whether an individual’s workers’ compensation claim is legitimate. The manager / supervisor is better off focusing on their area of expertise: what happens in the workplace. “We wouldn’t consider, ‘Oh, this person’s being performance managed, maybe that’s got something to do with their claim,’” Liv told us. “Our managers are very good at not looking for an agenda.” Which most likely means that they’re also good at maintaining RTW-nurturing relationships!

Schedule separate meetings for performance issues and RTW. According to Liv, “The most important element is to keep the issues separate, so that they don’t become blurred in anybody’s mind. Make it very clear to the worker when you’re discussing performance related matters, and when you’re discussing return to work.” Where possible, have different staff deal with the issues at separate meetings:

  • When dealing with performance issues, involve the HR Advisor, the worker and their manager / supervisor; and
  • When dealing with RTW issues, schedule another meeting, this time with the Workers’ Comp Advisor / Manager  and their manager / supervisor.

At smaller organisations, the HR advisor and the workers’ comp case manager / RTW Coordinator might be the same person, so it is even more important to schedule separate meetings and maintain clear boundaries. Liv recommended encouraging the worker to bring a support person along. “Do everything you can to separate the two issues,” she told us.

Know your staff, pay attention to performance, understand mental health and intervene early. While it is important to keep the processes around performance management and return to work separate, in practice the two things are often linked. Performance issues can be an indication that a work absence or compensation claim is brewing, especially when the problem is related to a psych injury or mental health. Liv believes that, “It’s important that managers and supervisors really know their staff and can pick up on those big mental health issues, like depression, anxiety and substance abuse. If you’re able to identify these early – perhaps by noticing that they are impacting the workers’ performance – then you can offer the appropriate support so that hopefully you don’t get to the point where someone is being performance managed and then has a psych claim.”

Liv said that VirginBlue’s “brilliant EAP provider” has trained most managers, supervisors and RTW Coordinators to identify mental health concerns and the impacts that these might have on performance. EAPs can also provide support to employees, who may be stressed about the return to work process and / or performance management issues.

Bear in mind that performance management must be undertaken in a reasonable way. It’s not unheard of for the process of performance management to itself generate workers’ compensation claims, particularly psych claims. If this happens, in order to determine the legitimacy of the claim the insurer will be looking at whether the employer undertook “reasonable management action”. If the employer failed to do so, they will be liable for it.

And Liv’s final words of advice were, “Document, document, document!”


Published 24 August, 2009 | Updated 25 August, 2009