Getting the message right: evidence-based insights to improve organizational return-to-work communication practices
Purpose: There is an absence of evidence-based guidance to support workplace stakeholders in the effective delivery of return-to-work (RTW) messages. Our study examines the specific RTW communication practices and their impact on the management of work disability. Methods: Within two large and complex healthcare organizations, semi-structured interviews were conducted with workplace stakeholders (e.g., supervisors, union representatives, disability management professionals and workers' compensation representatives) and workers who had previously experienced sickness absence related to an occupational injury or illness. For workplace stakeholders interview questions asked about their roles and responsibilities in the RTW process, and specific communication strategies and messages that were used at different phases of the RTW process. For worker participants, interview questions explored RTW experiences and the impact of communication on work re-integration. An interpretative descriptive approach was used to inductively examine themes from interviews to create ways of understanding phenomena that yielded applied findings. Results: Forty participants were interviewed including workplace stakeholders and workers. Participants frequently described effective RTW communication as messages that were delivered by a workplace stakeholder that included the content required by an injured worker to navigate the organizational disability management process and utilized specific strategies to address the perceived attitudes and perceptions held by an injured worker regarding work re-integration. Workplace stakeholders described five specific communication strategies including relaying messages of support, optimizing the timing of communication, careful word choice, framing messages, and tailoring communication to the injured worker. Conclusion: RTW communication is an active process that requires a strategic approach. Effective communication practices represent an important strategy for workplace stakeholders to address the barriers held by injured workers and foster early and sustained RTW.