Supporting return to work after ill-health

18 Feb 2019

How can managers help ensure a successful return to work for employees after a period of sickness absence?

Support from managers and colleagues, and a positive attitude, are most likely to enable a long-term return to work, according to a research review led by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The review looked at the impact of various personal and social factors on sustainable return to work after ill-health due to musculoskeletal disorders, such as joint and back pain, and common mental health conditions, for example stress, depression or anxiety. These are the most common causes of sickness absence in developed countries.

After examining evidence from 79 studies conducted between 1989 and 2017, the researchers from UEA's Norwich Business School and Uppsala University in Sweden found the most consistent evidence for achieving sustainable return to work was for support from line managers or supervisors and co-workers, employees having a positive attitude and high self-efficacy (their belief in their capabilities to achieve a goal or outcome), being younger and having higher levels of education.

"Promoting a culture of support at the workplace is essential, a culture that makes returning workers feel valued, worthy and not necessarily blamed for absence, as the former would improve work attitudes and ease the transition back to work," explained lead author Abasiama Etuknwa, a postgraduate researcher at UEA.

The findings suggest that return-to-work programmes need to encourage supportive interactions between leaders and co-workers and returning workers, Etuknwa said. As well as having a direct effect on sustainable return to work, this could have an indirect effect through enhanced returners' attitudes towards work and self-efficacy.

The review has been published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation.

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