Overcoming Return to Work Barriers

While most people are happier if they are performing productive work rather than being at home and isolated, there are factors that may make a return to work less likely. It is the role of the return to work coordinator and joint labour-management committee to identify and eliminate these personal and environmental barriers when possible, or to diminish their effect.

Some of the barriers and examples of how they might negatively impact return to work include:

  • Design, delivery and entitlement of benefits:  Some benefit programs do not permit maintenance of benefits during partial return to work, thereby forcing disabled workers to stay off work until fully recovered, possibly increasing the length of recovery time. Others do not permit a trial return to work or penalize the worker if a trial return to work was not successful.
  • Corporate policies: Some companies may discourage or ban communications with injured or ill workers, thereby disconnecting workers from their social ties in the workplace and eliminating discussion of possible accommodations that would allow the worker to return to work. Other policies may charge the cost of accommodations or modified return to work to the specific department where the worker was employed as opposed to establishing a centralized fund.
  • Collective agreement issues: Some provisions of collective agreements may make it difficult to return the worker to a modified or different job, either temporarily or permanently. These may include clauses on call back after layoff, seniority provisions or job classification.
  • Psychological factors of disability: Disability, especially when permanent and life-changing, may have profound impacts on the person’s mental health and social network, leading to depression, anger and personality changes, especially when the individual also experiences a loss of income and a loss of the status and social contacts that come from meaningful employment. The worker may be reluctant to return to work, fearing reinjury. If workers have been off work for a long period of time, they may have adjusted their lives to a pace and structure that makes is difficult to return to regular employment. In addition, they may have become isolated from their coworkers and lack the social connection to the workplace.
  • Location and type of organization where the injured/ill worker is employed: An employer located in a remote community with few social or health services may find it more difficult to return an injured or ill worker to modified or full-time employment than one located near many services and support bodies. Smaller organizations may have more limited resources, and may lack experienced and trained labour and management representatives familiar with the health care and rehabilitation issues related to effective return to work.
  • Nature of disability: Temporary disabilities requiring relatively short rehabilitation and modified work times before an individual returns to their pre-disability employment generally impose fewer difficulties for workplaces than severe illnesses and injuries. The latter may require longer periods of rehabilitation and graduated return to work and/or result in a permanent disability and inability to return to the previous job. Progressive chronic illnesses such as multiples sclerosis where the person’s health status may be continually changing, may also present challenges to accommodation. Mental health issues are often the most difficult to accommodate due to the social attitudes about these problems.
  • Legislative implication: Provisions of the employment standards and occupational health and safety legislation may be a barrier in returning some individuals to work. For example, some provinces have legislation requiring that a person be paid for a certain number of hours per day even if they work shorter hours. A worker returning to work may initially only be able to work a couple of hours a day because of disability.
  • Performance/productivity issues: Permanent modifications to a job may place additional demands on coworkers that may decrease their productivity and increase their chances of illness and injury. If workers are returned prematurely to duties that they are not able to handle, they may reinjure themselves or jeopardize the safety of others working around them.
  • Workplace environment challenges: The age and condition of the workplace and the nature of the work performed may make it difficult to make the physical changes and workplace modifications that allow the individual to return to work. Workers with certain types of disabilities, e.g., diabetes may find it difficult to return to work in remote or isolated settings.
  • Lack of related experience and requisite skills and training in the employee with a disability: An employee who cannot return to the previous job or requires extensive modification may need education or training to operate the assistive technology or perform a new job.
  • Supervisor knowledge of how to make accommodations: Supervisors may know very little about the assistive technology available to assist a person with a disability. They may also not know how to modify work during the recover/rehabilitation process.
  • Attitudes or stereotypes among co-workers and supervisors towards persons with disabilities: Coworkers and supervisors may be fearful that the person with disabilities may not be able to “pull their weight” or make meaningful contributions. They may be particularly fearful of persons with a mental health issue or judgmental about a person with a substance abuse problem.