Workplace factors affect return-to-work accommodations

In brief

  • Workplace factors, such as firm size and union status, have an important influence on the likelihood that an injured worker will be offered and will accept modified work. The worker’s health or other personal factors have less influence.
  • Work accommodations are more likely to be offered in workplaces that are unionized and that have strong disability management policies and practices.
  • For policy-makers, the findings suggest more attention needs to be paid to workplace factors early in the return-to-work process.

Published: January 2009

Why was this study done?

This study set out to find the factors associated with: (1) an employer offering accommodated duties to a worker with a lost-time, work-related soft-tissue or musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), and (2) a worker accepting that offer. Accommodated work is also known as modified work or light duties. It is work that has been adapted to the limitations of the worker’s injury or illness. Examples are different job tasks, shorter hours, changed workstations or a different job.

How was the study done?

Researchers compiled information on 401 workers with musculoskeletal injuries who had filed a compensation claim with Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). These workers were also interviewed one month after injury. This information was then linked to various factors thatpotentially affected work accommodation. These included:

  • worker-related factors such as age, gender, health status, pain levels
  • job factors such as physical job demands, tenure, supervisor support
  • workplace-level factors such as firm size, unionization, organizational policies and practices.

What did the researchers find?

One month after injury, 58 per cent of workers had been offered accommodated work. Of these, 76 per cent accepted the offer. Among those who did not accept, 92 per cent said they were not physically ready or able to go back to work, and 65 per cent said they were following doctors’ recommendations.

Accommodated work was more likely to be offered by workplaces that were unionized and those with strong disability management policies and practices. It was also more likely to be offered to young workers and to workers in:

  • Highly repetitive jobs
  • Pink-collar jobs (i.e. clerical, sales and service-sector jobs traditionally filled by women)
  • Jobs with low supervisor support (This surprising finding may have occurred as a supportive supervisor may not “pressure” an injured worker to return at one month, to allow recovery. Therefore accommodated work may not have been created.)

Accommodated work was more likely to be accepted by workers who:

  • Had been in their jobs for over a year
  • Had highly repetitive jobs
  • Had less physically demanding jobs
  • Were younger in age.

Apart from age, none of the worker-level factors, such as gender, health status and pain levels, were associated with either offer or acceptance of accommodated work.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

One strength was that the study included workers with denied or undecided claims so that researchers could capture the experience of all workers who felt their injury was work-related. A limitation was that the information about accommodated work was based on reports of injured workers, whose recall of past events may have been inaccurate.