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Return-to-work programmes help workers with chronic MSDs to stay active and healthy

Effective rehabilitation and return-to-work (RTW) programmes are crucial to ensuring that workplaces in Europe remain healthy, safe and sustainable as the workforce ages. They are good for businesses and for workers with chronic musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs); they can be the difference between staying in work as opposed to disability, sick leave and early retirement.


Why are effective RTW programmes so important?

Effective RTW programmes can enable workers to return to the workplace, thus saving them from financial stress and ensuring that they can be still a valuable member for the society. For businesses, a comprehensive RTW programme helps reduce costs, maintain productivity, lift team morale, and keep experienced workers on their books.

An effective RTW programme provides for changes in how work is done, either temporarily or permanently, such as through lighter tasks or reduced working hours. Timing preventive actions can help workers remain active while recovering, and even continue working despite having a chronic condition. Open communication with workers is key, particularly as they have to deal with physical and psychological factors quite challenging.[1]

Implementing a successful RTW strategy

A successful RTW strategy requires a joined-up approach involving all the relevant actors collaborating to support the worker, including the healthcare provider, employer, line manager and the worker themselves. Typically, they should involve:

  • a clear and up-to-date workplace policy on rehabilitation integrated into broader company policies;
  • support from management and human resources as and when required;
  • a positive focus on worker’s capabilities, what they can do – not what they cannot;
  • workplace adjustments (temporary or permanent) allowing workers to return safely and as early as possible, based on risk assessment;
  • a RTW plan, agreed between the worker and manager, such as a gradual return to work – you don’t have to be 100% fit to work;
  • arrangements based on expert medical opinion/specialist advice tailored to the individual;
  • regular reviews of the worker and workplace to ensure that any changes made have been effective.

Employers have legal duties to provide reasonable accommodations at work for those workers with disabilities. They also have health and safety duties to protect any particularly sensitive workers and accommodations should be made even if a worker does not fall under the definition of a worker with a disability. Some Member States have more detailed requirements and rehabilitation programmes that apply to workers and their employers.[2]

For small and medium-sized enterprises, a simplified approach can be taken to ensure that workers are provided with information on possible (external) programmes for RTW. Support and education to the worker’s colleagues and supervisors in relation to good communication can also be easily provided, as well as making work requirements more flexible. In cases where flexibility is a problem, a good option can be to align with other companies that have more flexible jobs.[3]

Putting a successful RTW plan into action

A receptionist with osteoarthritis and osteopenia at a medium-sized company successfully returned to work following an accident at home where she suffered fractures in her back, tore her ankle ligaments and stretched the cruciate ligament in her right knee. This resulted in six months off work.

Her return to work was gradual, working part-time for 1 month and 7-hour days for the following month before returning to her full-time role at 7.5 hours a day. Colleagues were enlisted to help with some of her duties such as carrying heavy postal deliveries, and a risk assessment led to a number of workplace changes. These included a better-designed telephone headset to reduce hand movement, a new footrest for better support, and easier to move multi-drawers for storage.

The fast implementation of the return-to-work process enabled the worker to return to her original job with minimal changes to her work tasks. While the implementation of changes involved specialist advice from in-house ergonomists, this was all done in the context of the display screen equipment (DSE) regulations. The measures should therefore be transferable to all organisations, but ergonomics expertise would be beneficial.

With the right employer and workplace adjustments, combined with support from public health systems and social and employment services, most workers with chronic conditions can continue working. But more still needs to be done to broaden some Member States’ RTW systems to all workers, to support early intervention and adopt processes allowing for a gradual return to work. Find out more about chronic conditions on its priority area page and remember to follow EU-OSHA’s Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.