While some time off maybe necessary, research has found1 that staying at work, or returning to work as soon as possible, helps us recover faster and achieves better health outcomes.
Not only does it support better health and wellbeing over the long term, but it enables ongoing employment, which in turn can mean better financial outcomes and a more comfortable retirement.
Why should I go back to work?
International studies2 indicate that if a person is off work for 20 days, there is a 70 per cent chance they will return to work, but if they are off work for 70 days, the chance of return to work falls to just 35 per cent.
Evidence suggests that prolonged rest may be harmful. It can delay recovery and increase the risk of chronic pain and adverse complications from prolonged inactivity. Long-term absence can lead to people feeling isolated, and they can lose their sense of purpose and identity.
Staying connected to work is an important part of recovery, because work contributes to our sense of self-worth and social connection. Staying active at work can help to prevent loss of confidence and depression. The regular routine of getting out of bed in the morning and doing something that has a sense of contributing to something greater than oneself – as well as the social connections created by work – helps a great deal towards maintaining optimal mental health.
Top tips for returning to work
If you do find yourself in a situation where you are suffering from serious injury, or experiencing a physical or mental illness, here are some ways that can help you stay at work. Or, if you do need to take some time off, these tips may help you return to work faster.
Stay connected with your employer: It is in the interests of employers that staff return to work as soon as possible. Research has shown that when employees stay at work or return to work as soon as possible after an illness or injury, it leads to improved staff retention and a reduction in costs relating to lost productivity, staff training and overtime.
The sooner you talk with your employer, the sooner you can work together to implement strategies to support you.
Co-create a workplace plan: Work together with your employer to develop a return to work or stay at work program that either assists you in staying in the workplace or returning to work in a timely manner.
Tailored to your specific circumstances, the program should set out a series of agreed steps to take on your return to work. The plan can also identify how managers and co-workers can best support you during the program, such as acknowledging that there may be periods when your concentration, morale or performance are lower, especially when your symptoms are exacerbated.
Agree on modified duties: If you are unable to resume your previous responsibilities, you and your employer can identify and agree on suitable alternative duties. This can take into consideration and recognise your existing skills and experience, which can be incorporated in your return to work plan. If necessary, the program can include retraining so that you can transition to a new role.
Collaborate with your insurer: Talk to your life insurer to find out what types of support they can offer to help you transition back to work more easily. Insurers often have a team of experts on board such as doctors, psychologists and rehabilitation consultants who can help make sure you have the treatment and support you need and assist you and your employer in developing a realistic return to work or stay at work plan.
Getting back to work after injury or illness may seem challenging but is important for long-term physical and financial health. For more information about supporting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, visit www.superfriend.com.au.
Margo Lydon is chief executive officer and company secretary of SuperFriend, a not-for-profit organisation focused on creating positive, healthy and safe working environments.
1. Preventing Needless Work Disability by Helping People Stay Employed. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine [Internet]. 2006 [cited 28 September 2017];48(9):972-987. Available from: https://www.acoem.org/PreventingNeedlessWorkDisability.aspx
2. Johnson, David and Fry, Tim (2002) Factors affecting return to work after injury: a study for the Victorian WorkCover Authority. Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. Melbourne University; 2002. Available from: https://minervaaccess.unimelb.edu.au/handle/11343/33726