How to improve return to work programs through early intervention

There are a number of early intervention strategies that are likely to improve return to work outcomes for workers, employers and insurers, according to a new report.

While there is a high level of understanding and belief in the importance of early intervention to improve work outcomes for injured and ill workers, the report found more can be done to improve the effectiveness of early intervention in return to work programs.

The Early Intervention in the Workers’ Compensation Process report, compiled by Monash University for Safe Work Australia, emphasised the crucial need for stakeholders to systematically evaluate their existing projects involving early interventions.

Ideally, the report said a national evidence-based framework or criteria set could be co-developed to guide this. “This would enable a shared understanding of what works/does not work in the setting of Australian workers’ compensation schemes,” the report said.

It also suggested creating more opportunities for open collaboration, partnership and sharing around early intervention in return to work schemes.

“There should be more engagement with healthcare providers across Australia to improve communication of what is needed from them to improve outcomes for workers. Ideally, a whole-of-government strategy to increase access to timely healthcare for workers involved in the compensation process could be faciliatory,” the report said.

However, there are some risks in the creation of early interventions within the workers’ compensation system (such as confidentiality of the worker and use to prevent a claim being made), and the report said more work is needed to better understand this and put in place strategies to mitigate these risks.

Importantly, early intervention needs to be underscored by an environment that encourages regular and effective communication and genuine consultation between all the actors in the early intervention process.

“These include injured or ill employees and their families, carers and representatives (unions), employers, and service delivery providers (including health practitioners),” the report said.

Another recommendation focused on strategies to better support healthcare professionals, who can play in early intervention. “They can, therefore, act as a barrier or facilitator to early intervention in all settings,” the report said.

“The importance of good work to health is widely accepted, but to achieve good work outcomes for workers, healthcare providers need more information. All stakeholders could usefully promote the benefits of good work for improving health outcomes to encourage developing better education and training of healthcare providers to support their critical role in early intervention and the workers’ compensation process.”

The report also said it is important that all workers fully understand their workers’ rights, how to recognise occupational disease/injury and what actions to take in the event of an injury or when symptoms of an injury or illness emerge.

“A worker’s right to make a workers’ compensation claim should never be in question and must not be affected by implementing or accessing early interventions,” the report said.