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Return to Work Survey: steady numbers, but more involvement is key

RTW Return to work survey, configurable compliance software safety software

Safe Work Australia has released a series of brand new reports on the return to work experience of injured workers. More specifically, the reports focus on the outcomes of injured workers who receive workers’ compensation and various factors that affect their ability to return to work. The survey, which was conducted in mid-2016, covers all Australian territories and New Zealand, with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory.

Unlike previous surveys, this year’s report broadened the scope of eligibility for participants, resulting in a much larger sample size. According to Safe Work’s published Headline measures report, in past years the sample consisted of injured workers who had missed at least 10 days from work and filed a workers’ compensation claim 7-9 months prior to the interview. This time around, the sample was expanded to include injured workers who meet the following criteria:

  • had at least one day away from work
  • submitted a claim in the two years prior to the interview period
  • had or did not have payment-related activity within 6 months prior to the sample being drawn, and
  • worked in either premium paying (including own businesses) or self-insured organizations (note New Zealand does not have self-insured organizations)
Work injury health safety

To adjust for the sampling changes, the methodology included a Historic Cohort, which acted as a kind of control group. This group consisted of workers who matched the previous years’ criteria (those who had taken 10+ days off work and submitted a worker’s compensation claim 7-9 months prior to the survey). The entire sample, which encompassed both the old and new categories of workers, is referred to as the Balance Cohort.

The most significant metric evaluated by the surveys is the Return to Work Rate or the proportion of injured workers with 10+ days off who returned to work for any period of time since the injury occurred. For 2015/16, the comparison data in the Historic Cohort shows that 87% of Australian and 86% of New Zealand workers had returned to work at some point, for any length of time, since their injury. Year over year, Australia’s Return to Work Rate is the same as the prior years’ measurement, whereas New Zealand saw an insignificant decrease of 1%. And in the past 18 years, Australia’s rate has wavered anywhere between 83% and 87%. New Zealand’s rate has been less consistent over time, sliding down from above 90% in the early 2000s but generally staying in a similar range as Australia in the past decade.

A related but distinct metric is the Current Return to Work Rate, which denotes whether the injured workers were actually back at work at the time of the interview. The surveys found that 77% of injured workers in Australia and 79% of injured workers in New Zealand were employed at the time of the interview.

Within Australia, it is notable that Victoria, Comcare, New South Wales, and Tasmania consistently outperformed the national average on both of the previous metrics.

Besides these key figures, the results discuss a few additional findings regarding the experience of injured workers and how various factors from business size to management oversight might affect their ability to return to work swiftly after an injury.

When it comes to the actual experience of using workers’ compensation, the results indicated a downward trend in confidence. In Australia in particular, workers did not feel that the system adequately protects workers’ best interests. Complaints about communication across the various parties involved were also quite common.

Across the board, employees of small and medium-sized organizations were more confident of their perceived autonomy and the level of consultation and appreciation they receive on the job. Compared to their counterparts in medium and large organizations, employees of smaller companies had by far the most positive perceptions of mutual support between employees and management, their management’s commitment to workplace safety as well as their personal degree of involvement in developing their own return to work plan.

That’s not to say that larger businesses did not shine in other areas. Employees of larger organizations were more likely to report fair treatment during and after the workers’ compensation claims process. Larger businesses seem to be a hair more successful at supporting outgoing workers’ needs than small and medium businesses. Workers in larger organizations were also less likely to be discouraged from filing a workers’ compensation claim by their employer.

One of the key takeaways from this report is that the return to work plan can actually make a critical difference for injured workers and both improve both the workers’ experience and shorten the time spent off work. More than three-quarters of workers in Australia and New Zealand said that their plan was either helpful or very helpful, but unfortunately, only about half of all workers report being fully involved and consulted in the making of the plan. Increasing workers’ participation in the return to work plan, along with improved employee guidance, could greatly improve this process for workers and companies alike.

By Aja Cacan at

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