Psychosocial Factors in Returning to Work

We all know that persistent pain from work-related injuries affects an employee’s attitude about returning to work. Unfortunately, the psychological ramifications of chronic pain can also result in prolonged legal action, increasing legal fees, large settlements, and ultimately, failure of the employee to return to work. So, how can we prevent chronic pain from escalating workers’ compensation costs?

In a study titled Integrating Psychosocial and Behavioral Interventions to Achieve Optimal Rehabilitation Outcomes that appeared in the December 2005 issue of the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, researchers studied the psychological factors that impede an injured worker in returning to work:

  • Obsession – The persistence of the pain becomes so overwhelming that it is the only thing the employee thinks about.
  • Fear – The employee fears the possibility of becoming re-injured, which increases their current pain. As a result, the possibility of another injury and resulting disability cripples the employee psychologically and causes them to put off returning to work.
  • Perception – When an injured worker has been on disability leave for an extended period, they may feel that co-workers believe they are faking their pain. This causes uneasiness about returning to work and facing co-workers.
  • Self-fulfillment – If an employee believes they are not physically capable of returning to work because of the severity of their pain, this can lead to a failed transition back to the workplace.

In addition to internal factors, researchers noted that there are external psychosocial issues that can impact the injured employee’s desire to return to work.

  • Co-worker support – When injured employees feel there is a lack of social support to help them transition back, they delay returning to work.
  • Job stress – Employees who believe that the stress level at work will intensify their physical pain tend to remain on disability.
  • Workplace attitudes toward disability – Injured employees who feel that the general attitude about disability is that it is a way to “milk the system” sometimes delay returning.

The researchers concluded that understanding the significance of the internal and external psychosocial factors on the employee’s successful transition back into the workplace is critical to the design of return to work programs. First-line supervisors should be trained to detect if an employee is experiencing any of the psychosocial risk factors, as well as how to eliminate or lessen the impact of those risk factors.

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