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Return to work barriers

What are return to work barriers?

Barriers can include social, personal and environmental factors that negatively impact on a worker’s ability to successfully return to work following an injury.

The most common barriers within rehabilitation and return to work include:

  • Worker or employer’s belief that the worker can only return to work once they have fully recovered from their injury
  • Employer perceptions that the worker is exaggerating the impact of their injury
  • Conflicting views as to whether or not the worker has capacity to return to work
  • The worker’s fear that they might re-injure themselves if they return to work
  • The ongoing presence of, or inability to divert the worker away from workplace stressors
  • Worker’s perception that they lack skills and abilities to do any form of work due to their injury

How employers can help resolve barriers

Employers play an important role in finding solutions for barriers that prevent a worker from successfully returning to work. As employers have a key liaison role with workers, they are in the best position to identify barriers at the earliest opportunity and commence the process of finding reasonable solutions.

For the majority of barriers, employers have the challenge of educating workers and changing their attitudes towards return to work and/or managing their expectations. This can be difficult as it requires employers to demonstrate excellent skills in active listening, supportive questioning and responding to non-verbal cues.

The most effective way to identify barriers to return to work is to engage in meaningful two-way conversations with the worker. The ideal time to commence these conversations is from the point that the workplace becomes aware that the worker has sustained an injury.

Employers can enquire about the following with the worker as a way of identifying if any particular barriers exist:

  • The worker’s motivation to return to work
  • How the injury has impacted the worker (focusing on the biopsychosocial approach)
  • Worker’s understanding of the injury and the medical treatment they require
  • Work status and existing relationships with the supervisor and other work colleagues
  • Ability to perform daily living activities
  • Support networks outside of the workplace
  • Any financial stress caused by the injury

When a dispute arises concerning rehabilitation

The guidelines for the standard for rehabilitation detail that an employer should inform a worker of the appropriate dispute resolution procedure should a worker not agree with elements of a proposed workplace rehabilitation and return to work plan or suitable duties program.

This resolution process should attempt to address concerns raised by the injured worker or their representative in an effective and efficient manner.

Negotiation is a dispute resolution mechanism that could be utilised by an employer.

An employer may request assistance from an insurer to assist in resolving disputes.

Some workplace agreements and awards may contain dispute resolution procedures that would apply.

An employer can also advise the worker to obtain advice from a union or a government agency.

What is negotiation?

A range of people are involved in the rehabilitation and return to work process for a worker including the worker themselves, the employer, treating doctor/s, insurer, work colleagues, friends and family.

Negotiation is a skill that is regularly required in rehabilitation and return to work coordination. It is a two-way process where stakeholders reach an agreement on a particular issue after considering preferences from each stakeholder. Negotiation is often required as the process involves multiple stakeholders at any given time and each stakeholder may have a different approach as to how return to work could be achieved.

Negotiation is considered successful when:

  • stakeholders involved in the decision-making feel that their needs have been met
  • the process is fair and provides opportunities for all stakeholders to contribute equally
  • relationships are not damaged throughout the process.

The negotiation process

1. Define the negotiation

  • What is the nature of the matter that needs to be resolved?

2.  Understand each side’s position

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s argument?
  • What is the preferred outcome for each side?
  • Is there any common ground between both sides that can be reinforced during the negotiation? Highlight the benefits of reaching an agreement.
  • What is blocking a resolution and what possible solutions exist
  • What is the consequence if a decision is not reached?

3. Collect information

  • Collate all relevant information relating to the decision being made. This may include:
    • the workers rehabilitation and return to work plan
    • medical reports
    • copies of all Work capacity certificates – workers’ compensation
    • relevant legislation
    • case notes
    • correspondence exchanged between stakeholders.
  • Use the information collected to support your point of view.
  • Acknowledge both the strengths and weaknesses in your argument.

4. Conduct the negotiation

  • Be upfront about what is not part of the negotiation – what is it about and not about.
  • Present your side point by point.
  • Highlight the benefit of reaching agreement and what it will achieve for the worker.
  • Focus on one to two main points – keep the discussion concise and focused on a particular issue.
  • Break down what you want into small and simple items for discussion.
  • Know when to cease the discussion if a resolution is not being reached without damaging the relationship.
  • Document the discussion and the outcomes agreed to.

Strategies for difficult negotiations

Negotiations can be difficult because each side is advocating for a different view, approach or outcome in relation to a situation.

There may be situations where the negotiation reaches a certain point and fails to progress. This can cause frustration and be an inefficient use of people’s time if the discussion does not lead to a reasonable resolution.

The following strategies may assist in progressing difficult negotiations:

  1. Try to remove the emotion from the discussion and focus on the facts
  2. Be clear about what the actual issue is – what is causing the discussion to come to a halt?
  3. Revisit the common ground between each party – refocus the conversation on this
  4. Take a short break and reconvene
  5. Consider changing the venue where the discussion is being held
  6. Change the people conducting the negotiation to bring a new approach
  7. Consider the use of a mediator.
Last updated
14 June 2019

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