The supervisor’s role in RTW – part one of three
05 Mar 2013
The health benefits of recovering at work are becoming more widely accepted in Queensland workplaces, but what happens to a worker’s recovery when a supervisor isn’t aware or supportive of a prompt return to work (RTW)?
Doctor Venerina Johnston from The University of Queensland has been working with a team of national and international researchers on this very topic, and the role supervisors play in achieving a positive return to work.
Over the next three weeks, a series of articles will be published which address a supervisor’s role in RTW, the health benefits of work and useful strategies to support a successful return to work.
The type of workplace culture and attitude of supervisors towards health, safety and post injury treatment can greatly influence whether or not a person will make a sustainable and positive return to work. During her research, Dr Johnston says it was evident how much impact the supervisor has on a person’s recovery and return to work.
“Supervisors can have both a positive and negative impact on employees’ physical and psychological health and well-being. They are crucial in helping a worker achieve a prompt return to work as they are the link between the worker and workplace policies and practices, and can often be the link between the health care provider and employee,” Dr Johnston said.
The supervisors’ knowledge of the workplace and possible suitable duties available to injured workers can help facilitate an outcome that is favourable to all parties.
“Supervisors have an intimate knowledge of the range of jobs available at the workplace. They can provide modified work, interpret corporate policies and facilitate access to corporate and medical resources. They can also monitor a worker’s health and capability on a daily basis, and communicate a positive message of concern and support,” Dr Johnston added.
During Dr Johnston’s research, she referred to other research studies where it was evident communication is a significant factor in helping an injured worker’s recovery.
“Research shows injured workers said they would like supervisors to make contact with them early after an injury. They also said they would like to be invited to work activities as this makes them feel valued.”
WorkCover Queensland Customer Services Manager, Jane Stevens says employers are encouraged to maintain regular communication when one of their workers has been injured.
“Open and regular communication not only helps the worker remain part of the workplace, it can also decrease the likelihood of someone seeking common law.
“When there is no communication, the worker can often feel isolated, they may also worry they won’t have a job to return to or feel they’re a burden on the workplace and employer. These feelings combined with a lack of support and communication from the employer can cause the relationship to break down and lead to a worker pursuing common law,” Ms Stevens explained.
“As Dr Johnston’s research highlights, supervisors are in a position to facilitate a successful return to work and initiate regular communication with the injured worker,” Ms Stevens added.
“It also lets them know they are valued, creates a strong workplace culture and improves morale. The timing and frequency of contact should be negotiated with the individual worker so the supervisor is not perceived as ‘prying’,” Dr Johnston said.
Part of the discussion with the injured worker should cover when they feel they can return to work (if they’re not able to recover at work), what suitable duties they can perform as well as any other concerns they may have such as re-injury or the cause of the injury.
Ms Stevens says the aim is to make them feel supported and a part of the team so they’re aware they have a job to return to.
“In doing so, a supervisor will not only be helping an injured worker get their life back on track, they’ll be reducing the impact to the worker’s team and the workplace, which is better for morale and the overall bottom line,” Ms Stevens said.
“Securing a safe and sustainable return to work makes sound financial sense. It is a win-win situation for the business in terms of productivity, staff turnover and morale,” Dr Johnston concluded.
Next week, Dr Johnston will provide strategies to help employers and supervisors create provisions for a positive stay at, or prompt return to work.
 Shaw W, Robertson MM, Pransky G, McLellan RK. Employee Perspectives on the Role of Supervisors to Prevent Workplace Disability After Injuries. J Occup Rehab 2003; 13: 129-42.