Griffith University: Return to work hampered by stigma and lack of support

Twin reports by Griffith University and published by Safe Work Australia as part of the National Return to Work Strategy 2020-2030 recommend culture changes to empower workers returning to work following an injury or illness.

The Stigma towards Injured or Ill Workers report led by Adjunct Research Fellow Dr Tristan Casey found several benefits for organisations that implemented strategies and policies to reduce the negative perception of workplace injuries.

“When consulting with industry leaders they revealed it’s possible to reduce workers’ compensation insurance premiums by addressing stigma through activities described in this report,” Dr Casey said.

He said the most cost-effective and efficient way to reduce stigma was by creating supportive, inclusive and mentally health workplaces.

“Stigma is one factor that may cause workers to be hesitant to disclose injuries and illness, claim less than they’re entitled to and rush their return to work or overcompensate for their condition.”

“There’s robust empirical evidence on the positive effect of these cultural changes including a significant return on investment for mental health initiatives and it contributes to workplace performance such as turnover and productivity.”

The Psychological Response to Injury report from the School of Applied Psychology and led by Professor Paula Brough Director of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing found employees experienced a range of psychological reactions after an injury or illness.

Depression was found to be the most common reaction affecting an employee’s capacity to work followed by emotional distress, anxious symptoms, fear-avoidance and levels of work stress.

The report recommends better screening for psychological injury risk factors, increasing early intervention and regular contact during employee recovery and greater support in managing psychological reactions in recovery.

“Employees should be empowered during their recovery and consulted in decisions and plans for their return to work,” Professor Brough said.

She recommends greater access be given to workplace arrangements including flexible scheduling, task modifications, graded return or role changes.

“How severe the initial injury or illness was, is frequently associated with worse psychological reactions.”

“But when there was social support, low levels of work stress and appropriate return to work interventions, injured employees reported more positive psychological reactions.”