The role of co-workers in return to work

In brief

Return-to-work (RTW) models and policies can be improved by taking into account social relations within a work unit, especially the role of co-workers.

Published: January 2013

Why was this study done?

Little research to date has explored the nature of social relationships and interactions in the workplace surrounding RTW. This study was done to help fill this gap. It examined the roles and contributions of co-workers in the RTW process.

How was the study done?

Researchers interviewed 33 people in seven work units within three municipalities in Sweden. At each work unit, open-ended interviews were conducted with a worker who had returned to work within the previous three months after an absence of at least one month, as well as with two or three of their co-workers and the person responsible for their RTW process (i.e. supervisor and/or human resources manager). Researchers also reviewed the RTW policies of the three municipal employers.

A critical element of this research was that it was about relations among people who directly knew each other and interacted at work.

What did the researchers find?

Three key themes surrounding the role of co-workers in RTW were identified:

(1) Policies and organizational structure for RTW. Although policies existed, they provided little practical guidance about how to manage RTW with respect to social relations within a work unit, and co-workers were barely mentioned.

(2) Social demands and expectations. How returning workers were received by co-workers varied from one workplace to the other, depending on the social norms of the work unit. However, the returning worker’s diagnosis and illness history (known in all the work units that took part) affected social interactions in all cases, with mental health disorders and prolonged absences causing more unease than musculoskeletal disorders and short-term absences.

In some work units, co-workers focused on the effect of the worker’s absence and RTW on getting the injured worker’s job done. The job was not considered “owned” by the worker and, therefore, was not seen as modifiable; instead, co-workers had to adjust to get the work done. This tended to create more tension. Co-workers asked what they got out of having the worker back, or their goodwill was drained as a result of the burden created by the absence.

In other work units, co-workers viewed the work task as something to which the worker was entitled to return. This created relatively fewer tensions within the work group. Co-workers focused on work modifications in order to allow the worker to return to a clearly defined work role. They saw the benefit of having the worker back in a particular job, given his/her experience and expertise.

(3) Supervisory management of RTW. Some supervisors talked openly with their work units about the RTW process, while others assumed the process was self-evident. The latter approach seemed to cause more anxiety among co-workers. Similarly, some supervisors took an active role in the RTW process, while those who took a more passive approach left no one in a formal position to mediate possible conflicts within the work group. The latter situation left co-workers on their own to solve problems in the RTW process, even though they were uncertain about roles and responsibilities.

What are the implications of the study?

The RTW process is socially dynamic and complex. Therefore, social context should be considered when planning the RTW of an injured or ill worker to ensure a successful and sustainable return. RTW models and policies can be improved by taking into account social relations within a work unit, especially the role of co-workers.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

The authors’ multi-disciplinary perspectives brought strength to the analysis of the findings. The study is limited by its focus on public-sector workplaces only. Other sectors might handle RTW processes and social dynamics in different ways.