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What boosts the chance that injured or ill workers will "return to work" by 20 to 30%?

One answer to this question is.... good work design!

This month, professionals in fields ranging from insurance to rehabilitative services converged on the Pan Pacific Hotel in Perth for WorkCover WA’s 2017 Return to Work Conference (May 2-3, 2017). Among that crowd was Professor Sharon Parker, prepared to present an afternoon keynote address, and Nima Farrell, an organisational psychology placement student working closely with the Centre for Transformative Work Design.

"Return to work" refers to the process in which individuals return back to work (or not) after becoming injured or otherwise unwell and are subsequently deemed unfit to continue working. Despite many of these individuals wanting to start work again, many barriers often prevent them from doing so. One crucial barrier is poorly designed work. Work that is too demanding, overly rigid in processes, or that does not allow the worker much freedom in how they go about their work can be problematic for individuals that already have a limited working capacity due to their ongoing recovery.

To kick things off, Sharon began her keynote by defining what exactly work design is, and gave some examples. She cited research showing, for example, that people are 20-30% more likely to return to work if the job has manageable demands and high levels of job autonomy.

With the audience’s intellectual appetite whetted, Sharon presented the results of a work design survey, completed by a portion of the audience, investigating how people respond to hypothetical return to work scenarios. This measure was designed specifically to tap into people's beliefs about how to support return to work (Andrei et al., in preparation). An example scenario is shown below.

The findings showed that professionals attending the conference were highly likely to choose good work design as a way to help people get back to work, which is encouraging (see the figure below).

However, a less encouraging finding was that individuals with management responsibilities were less likely to think of work design as a solution, suggesting that managers might benefit from additional education about this topic.

A white paper is currently in production, to be made available on this website. This paper will guide practitioners in making practical, yet evidence-based, decisions regarding returning workers.

We welcome your comments and questions about this topic, or your interest in research collaboration on this topic.

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