Injured worker peer groups shed light on improving return to work

In brief

  • Injured workers join peer support groups when they feel misunderstood and unfairly treated.
  • Greater sensitivity to the non-work aspects of return to work, such as negotiating the health-care and compensation systems, is important, and could pave the way for stronger and more effective disability prevention programs.

Published: January 2007

Why was this study done?

Although most workers who are injured on the job recover in a predictable way, some experience problems during the return-to-work (RTW) process. These workers account for considerable costs, as their compensation claims may be prolonged and health-care costs may grow. This study examined the challenges these workers face in their return to work.

How was the study done?

Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 37 people from three injured worker peer support groups. Participants included peer helpers who led the group, past participants and two administrators who provided funding for the groups. The participants came from different regions in a Canadian province. The interviews focused on the workers’ injury and situation afterwards, their interaction with employers, health-care providers and compensation providers, and their experiences with peer support groups.

What did the researchers find?

Injured workers joined peer support groups when they felt misunderstood and unfairly treated. The researchers identified four aspects of peer support:

  1. Situations prompting them to seek support. This usually occurred after workers experienced difficulty with the health-care or compensation systems. They felt they had encountered roadblocks when trying to navigate systems relevant to their situation.
  2. Personal advocacy. This referred to having peer supporters who understood the system "on [their] side.
  3. Social support. Workers valued this aspect of peer groups. One said, "You can sit at home and dwell about stuff a long time…you [go to the group]...and it's just kind of like, poof, five million tonnes lifted off the shoulders."
  4. Procedural support. Workers benefited from having help with compensation claims, RTW negotiations and financial support.

One common theme expressed by the injured workers was “falling between the cracks” of a system not set up to be sensitive to their particular situation.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

One strength is that the interviews allowed the participants to freely express their situations in their own way. Also, by including workers from different regions, the workers talked about their unique experiences in accessing health care, social services and employment possibilities. The study is limited as researchers had two months to gather information, which did not allow for further interviewing related to issues raised during initial interviews.