Podcast Title: Health and Safety to Go!


Episode #: 160 Ė Supporting Workers with a Comprehensive Return to Work Program



Introduction: Welcome to Health and Safety to Go! broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.


Host:† Thank you for joining us for this episode of Health and Safety to Go! Today weíre talking to Sonya Tonkovich, General Health and Safety Services Supervisor here at CCOHS about return to work programs for both physical and mental health related leaves.


Host: Hi Sonya, thanks for joining us today.


Sonya:† Thanks for having me, so happy to be here.


Host: Sonya, can you help set the stage for our listeners and explain what return to work programs are and why we need them?


Sonya: †Sure, return to work programs are part of a comprehensive Disability Management Program.† Really a return to work program focuses on finding meaningful and suitable work for workers who are coming back to the workplace from an injury or illness. ††Itís a collaborated effort, the goal of the program is to gradually return the worker to their pre-injury or pre-illness job, where appropriate, and in a timely manner. The process is not about diagnosis, and medical confidentiality really has to be respected at all times.


As to why we need them, studies show that an early and safe return to work can improve recovery time.† Returning to work also helps mitigate the psychosocial impact of being off work, due to an illness or injury.† It can even help employees feel valuable and decreases the chances of potential long term effects, such as depression.† From an employerís perspective, it helps to clarify the action plan, as to help to manage the disability or the return to work.† t also helps to improve productivity and it can reduce costs.


Host: Should a workplace have two return to work programs in place, one for physical injuries and one for mental health, to accommodate all types of leaves?


Sonya:† No, you donít really need to create a separate return to work program.† Just be sure that your existing program is comprehensive and that it will accommodate workers returning from mental health related absence also.† The guiding principles are very similar when planning for a return to work from a mental health related leave, as it would be for a physical injury. †The focus of the plan should be on the functional abilities of the worker, not the symptoms of the injury or illness, or its causes.

However, each situation is unique and the emotions and experiences of a worker returning from a mental health related absence can be different from those that were away due to a physical illness or injury. Of course, any worker returning can experience concerns about being a bother to others, rejection, isolation, and shame and even potentially stress, anxiety or even depression. There can also be a fear of potential harassment or associated stigmas. ††Thatís why itís important to discuss how the absence will be explained during the planning process ahead of time and what information will be shared with the rest of the team.


Host: Do you have any advice or tips on how workplaces can fully support someoneís return to work after being on leave for mental health reasons?


Sonya: ††Besides having your return to work plan that will outline any accommodations or modified duties, a timeline of how long it will take to ease the worker back into their regular routine.† There are also a few other things you can do to help accommodate the worker.


Usually allowing for flexible scheduling for medical appointments.† Maybe make changes to the work space that consider the needs of the individual with regards to noise, space, lights or other factors that can be an impact to the mental health, or concentration, or their overall wellbeing.


Of course, considering the energy and concentration levels of that individual, and scheduling work accordingly throughout the day.† You can also help the individual prioritize their work and activities which may involve breaking work into small, achievable tasks, or even removing non-essential tasks.

Of course, keep checking in with them.† An example would be, to have more frequent meetings to ensure that the return to work plan is working.† If the individual has been off on leave for some time, you might want to review training needs, and maybe provide some re-training or re-orientation to get them back to work.


Host: You shared how employers can accommodate workers back to work but I know there are many people listening today that are also welcoming colleagues and friends back to work after mental health related leaves. How can employees support each other during these transition periods?


Sonya: †As part of the return to work plan, itís important for Managers or Supervisors to communicate with their whole team, to let them know that the team member is returning and coming back to work. When your colleague returns after a leave, remember to honour their privacy.† You donít need to know the details of the illness or injury to make them feel welcome. They may want to talk about their health or maybe they wonít, but just let them know that youíre happy to see them back and respect any accommodations that they may require. †You can help them feel connected to the work, bringing them up to speed with whatís happened while they were away. †Just let them know youíre there to support them if they need it.


Host: Thanks Sonya, you bring up a valid point. At the end of the day, support is a key component to recovery from any kind of injury or illness. We always say a healthy workplace is one where everyone can thrive and feeling supported is a really big part of that. So with that said, are there any closing thoughts youíd like to leave us with today?


Sonya: †Well communication is also key. The details of the overall return to work program should be communicated to all staff, ideally, before it is actually needed. This open communication makes sure that everyone understands their role and has clear expectations.† Itís important to have touch points throughout the process, while the employee is off and while planning the return. And of course, once the employee returns, itís a process, so communication is paramount to ensuring that any accommodations are working and that the employee can have a safe return to their work.


Host: Sonya, thank you again for sharing your tips and expertise on return to work programs and mental health. For our listeners out there, if you want more information about return to work programs or mental health, please visit our website at ccohs.ca. Thanks for listening everyone!