Research Updates

Work Versus Return to Work?

RTWMatters team

Supervisors say that balancing competing demands is an integral part of supporting RTW

When someone on their team has been injured supervisors can feel they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the needs of the injured workers on one side and organisational demands (for example, fiscal pressures and productivity expectations) on the other. What do we know about how supervisors manage the impact of RTW programs on organisational effectiveness?

According to the Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research (ISCRR), supervisors “take on a range of responsibilities with respect to RTW, often doing even more than workplace HR Officers or OHS Officers”.

We know that this is vital for RTW: research shows that employees return to work more quickly if their supervisor understands their pain, shows concern and adjusts workplace demands accordingly.

However, the ability to “adjust workplace demands” does not always come easily. In fact, supervisors believe that the core competencies for promoting RTW include managing competing agendas, and balancing the injured worker’s needs against the needs of the organisation.

In a 2014 survey, supervisors identified 11 areas of expertise related to managing the way RTW impacts on their other organisational responsibilities.

The 11 competencies were:

  1. Managing the injured worker’s restrictions within broader responsibilities of service or duty of care (e.g. safety, OH&S, legal, moral responsibilities of the job);
  2. Managing the time-consuming nature of RTW programs within own workload;
  3. Managing the injured worker’s workload, especially in their absence;
  4. Balancing the injured worker’s needs with the needs of the organisation;
  5. Being accountable for RTW outcomes (especially in tight fiscal times and dealing with the pressure from management for managing the RTW well);
  6. Being committed to continuous improvement, being open to feedback and learning from experience, especially with regard to RTW programs;
  7. Documenting the case well;
  8. Having a long-term view of RTW (e.g. that the modified duties and its impact on the team is short-term and temporary and is worth it in the long run);
  9. Managing parallel performance issues (and keeping them separate in how they are managed);
  10. Managing competing agendas; and
  11. ‘Biting the bullet’ to make hard decisions (when required, e.g. for redeployment to other areas).

In addition to the issues around balancing competing agendas, supervisors highlighted the challenges of learning and improving on the job, and focusing on the long term value of RTW, despite the short term difficulties.

The question for organisations is whether supervisors are assisted in finding the right balance, or whether unrealistic pressures leave them unable to simultaneously support injured workers while meeting other organisational demands.

Original research

V. Johnston, K. Way, M. H. Long, M. Wyatt, L. Gibson, and W. S. Shaw, “Supervisor competencies for supporting return to work: a mixed-methods study,” Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 3–17, 2014