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Workplace injuries can be tough, both on the person who has been injured, and their loved ones. There is the inevitable process of coming to terms with an injury and any resulting changes to daily life, while also undergoing necessary medical treatment and rehabilitation. 

Once your recovery is on track, then there is the gradual shift back to work - sometimes with necessary adjustments to duties or your role. In some cases, workers are no longer able to perform their role as they used to. In other cases, there will be different, suitable duties which are allocated to a worker to perform, while their injury continues to heal and they recover.

Research has demonstrated that being able to return to work after an injury plays a significant role in fostering positive overall health and well-being. Having a job to do and a workplace to attend helps to contribute to a sense of worth, while conversely, being absent from work for longer periods of time can have a negative effect on your mental health and emotional well-being. It has been shown that the longer a person is out of work, the less likely they are to return to the workplace.

A key part of your emotional wellbeing after a workplace injury is linked to maintaining your daily routine and having some control and independence over your life. That is why getting back to work after an injury is just as important as the initial healing and treatment. In this article we are going to discuss the process for returning to work after an injury, and go through some of what you can expect as part of the return to work journey.  

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What is the process for returning to work after an injury?

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When you have suffered a workplace injury, there are certain steps you will need to take so that you can get back to work in a way that is safe, having regard to your injury or illness. In some cases, injured workers are unable to return to work at all. In other cases, workers will only be able to return to work on suitable duties for a period of time, before transitioning into other duties. A workplace injury is not always a physical injury; WorkCover claims for workplace injuries can include claims for psychological or psychiatric injuries.

The process for returning to work after an injury includes:

  • Speaking to your employer about your injury, your recovery, and your goals for returning to work
  • Working with WorkCover Queensland (or your self-employed insurance provider) to make a plan, along with your doctor and/or specialist, for your return to work
  • Looking at whether you may be best suited for a gradual return to work with suitable or alternative duties (instead of your usual duties or tasks)
  • Taking care of yourself and attending your medical appointments as necessary

You should feel valued, supported, and encouraged to return to work in whatever capacity you are able to as you recover. You should have as much input as possible into your return to work plan. Your GP and your employer will need to communicate regularly to ensure that your recovery is facilitated by your workplace. Your health and safety is paramount in the return to work process.

What are ‘Suitable duties’?

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As we mentioned above, some injuries will prevent a worker from undertaking the tasks that were part of their usual role. However, this does not mean that a worker should not be able to get back to work. 

Every employer should be encouraging in providing different, suitable duties that a worker can perform instead of their usual role while their work-related injury or illness heals, and as they recover. Suitable duties are tasks or a different role which takes into account the extent of the worker’s injury or illness and their restrictions.  

Suitable duties might include:

  • Part time work instead of full time work
  • Seated work at a desk or in an office
  • Stationary work
  • Work where there is no bending or twisting
  • Driving a vehicle, truck, or operating machinery
  • No heavy lifting
  • Lifting less than 5kg, or less than 10kg
  • Light duties, such as assistance roles

Every role is going to have a different demand for duties, and every type of suitable duties will be different from person to person, depending on their injury or illness. However, in every case, suitable duties need to be clear and realistic, as well as achievable, with a commitment from the worker and employer to work towards a goal of rehabilitation and return to work.

When injured workers are encouraged to return to work and have suitable duties allocated, they can maintain the routine they had pre-injury while also increasing confidence in their work and self, and even possibly developing new skills. This benefits the mental health and wellbeing of the worker and puts them on a better path to positive recovery.

For example: Gaven is a paramedic who has been employed by Queensland Health for five years. At the conclusion of a shift one evening, Gaven and his partner are called to attend a multi-vehicle accident which ends up having multiple fatalities. Gaven develops the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and makes an accepted WorkCover claim for his injury. After a suitable period of time off work receiving treatment, Gaven returns to work on a return to work plan and begins to undertake suitable duties. He splits his time on shift between admin tasks and training work in the classroom for competency and skill development.

What is host employment?

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In some cases, your employer will not have the capacity to offer suitable duties in your workplace. This is sometimes the case with smaller businesses, or in cases where the work is specific to a profession and has a narrow scope for suitable duties, such as bricklaying or construction work, for example. 

In this case, there is the option to engage with the Recover at Work Program, which is a program operated through WorkCover to place injured workers with a host employer who can offer suitable employment and duties while a worker recovers.

A placement with a host employer will run anywhere from three weeks through to a longer period of time. Every situation will be different, depending on where you are on your rehabilitation and return to work journey. The aim with a host employment arrangement is for an injured worker to be placed in a suitable workplace environment, building up work fitness, with the eventual goal of returning to the pre-injury role, wherever possible.

For example: Meredith is a carpenter who works with a small company. At work one day she seriously injures her shoulder, tearing her rotator cuff and is unable to raise her arm above her head for six months while it heals. Meredith is unable to be allocated suitable duties within her workplace, and so she enters into host employment with a different company in the same industrial estate, who can put her on administrative duties while she recovers.

Host employment is a great way for workers to continue to engage in a routine while also working alongside their employer and any healthcare or occupational health practitioners to ensure that recovery is taken seriously.

What if I can’t return to work after an injury?

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In some cases, following a very serious injury (such as a spinal injury or brain injury), workers are unable to return to their original role after an injury. This may be due to a physical injury and the work that was done previously was manual and is impossible to do post-injury. Or, it may be that the injury is psychological and the worker is unable to work in any type of role. In some situations, a worker is unable to return to their old role but can work in another type of employment.

Some things that may happen as a result of not being able to return to your original role after your workplace injury include:

  • If you have been permanently injured as a result of your workplace injury you may be assessed on your level of permanently impaired by WorkCover and offered a lump sum payment instead of continuing to receive weekly payments.
  • If your workplace injury was caused as a result of the negligence of your employer, you may be able to make a common law claim for compensation for your lost income, both past and future, as well as associated costs to do with your workplace injury.
  • If you are unable to perform your original duties and role you may be able to work in a different area which has a considerable pay decrease from your previous role. In this case you will be paid 100% for the work you are doing, along with 85% of the difference between your original wage and the suitable duties wage.
  • If you are unable to work again, you may be able to make both a workers compensation injury claim and a claim for total and permanent disability on your superannuation.

In every case, it is useful to have legal guidance and assistance to ensure you know what your options are at every stage. If your injury is permanent and you do not believe that you will be able to return to work, or if you have just been injured in the workplace and are looking for information on how you can go about making a WorkCover claim, we can assist you.

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