Canadian Safety Reporter this week drew our attention to two qualitative studies, joint ventures between past and present scientists from Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health (IWH), and colleagues in Australia. Both studies shed light on the oft-neglected stakeholder in the return-to-work process: co-workers.
Study 1: Factors affecting co-worker support, key conclusions
Among the key conclusions, Debra Dunstan of the University of New England in Australia and co-author Ellen MacEachen reported:
- Most co-workers have no information regarding when a returning co-worker is due to arrive at the workplace
- Confusion about job reassignment is common.
- In terms of offering support, the most willing co-workers are those with a pre-existing positive relationship with the returning worker.
- Other factors influencing willingness and consistency of support included: workplace culture (e.g. are workers team-oriented?) and the duration of the required support.
Notably, although some workers in the study saw the return-to-work process in positive terms, most described the process as detrimental. Commenting, Dunstan and MacEachen:
Specific negative impacts on co-workers included extra work or heavier duties, and disruptions of personal work effectiveness, organizational effectiveness and workplace social relationships. In the worst-case scenarios, co-workers suffered ‘ripple effects’ such as emotional distress, physical injury and termination of their own employment.
Additionally, confidentiality/privacy requirements posed challenges to supporting the process. Continue Dunstan and MacEachen:
Co-workers, who saw themselves as potential resources in RTW planning, sometimes felt shut out of the process due to confidentiality requirements — even when they wanted to show support to the returning worker…as well, co-workers’ lack of information about the nature of the workplace injury sometimes led to damaging rumours and speculation.
Study 2: The Structure of work, key conclusions
The second return-to-work study echoed the findings of the first (above). The study, led by Agnieszka Kosny, former scientist at the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health and now a research fellow at Australia’s Monash University, concluded:
- The structure of work can impede co-worker support and contribute to making injured workers’ experiences difficult.
- Factors and work conditions contributing to these difficulties include:
- a competitive and cost-cutting culture that facilitates the view of injured workers as a liability
- job insecurity (i.e. precariousness of work)
- different “camps” in the electrical sector, which were unlikely to help each other (for example, those with steady employment versus those with non-permanent work)
little modified work
- poor official communication among workplace parties.
Management can model acceptable and unacceptable behaviours for their workforce…it sets an example for how injured workers are regarded and treated.
Improving co-worker experiences with the return-to-work proces
Study 1 authors Dunstan and MacEachen proposed some ways that management can improve co-workers’ experiences with return-to-work. These include:
- hiring replacement staff to ease the workload on co-workers;
- communicating effectively so co-workers understand the injury (respecting privacy);
- consulting about return-to-work plans;
- receiving guidance on how to best help;
- tangible acknowledgement recognizing co-worker contributions (e.g. monetary compensation, extra holiday time).
For more information on Dunstan’s research, see the presentation here, with links on that page to the presentation slides (PDF format).
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