Co-workers play important, but sometimes “invisible” role in RTW

In Brief

  • Workplace return-to-work (RTW) policies can be interpreted and carried out in different ways by supervisors, co-workers, injured workers and others.
  • Co-workers can make a positive contribution during the return-to-work process. However, their efforts are sometimes “invisible” to supervisors.
  • Colleagues of an injured worker may be uncertain how to enact early contact and how to promote a sustained return to work.
  • Attention to these efforts may promote a successful return to work.

Published: January 2009

Why was this study done?

Many individuals are involved in helping to return injured workers to work. Yet few studies have examined how these individuals – particularly supervisors, co-workers and injured workers – interact with one another to facilitate return to work (RTW). This study explores how these interactions, or social relations, can affect a workplace-based RTW program.

How was the study done?

Researchers designed a qualitative study involving three public sector workplaces in Sweden. In total, 33 individual open-ended interviews were completed. The interviews were conducted with injured workers, two to three co-workers, and the supervisor and/or a human resources manager.

What did the researchers find?

In this study, the researchers identified three distinct phases of the return-to-work process: off work, back to work, and work sustainability.

Off work: Workplace social relations could become unbalanced during a worker’s absence. Normal roles changed and returning workers were then uncertain how to engage with the supervisor and co-workers. Although all three workplaces had policies around “early” contact, the supervisor, co-worker and the injured worker were not certain what they should be doing to make this contact.

Back to work: In spite of the specific policies addressing return to work, the researchers found that those involved had a coordination process on their own.

Sustained work: The researchers identified a gap in RTW policies around managing the injured worker’s abilities after return. Co-workers played an important role in supporting, and to an extent, organizing the day-to-day tasks for the injured workers.

Researchers identified a need for more organized focus on RTW sustainability.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

Researchers drew from different types of information (documents and interviews) and different participants in the RTW process (workers, co-workers and supervisors and/or human resources manager). During interviews, participants were able to use their own concepts while explaining situations. One limitation is the study was restricted to the public sector.