Support from managers and coworkers, as well as a positive attitude, can help employees have a smoother return to work after an absence due to mental or physical health issues, according to a new review of research published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Norwich Business School in England and Uppsala University in Sweden examined evidence from 79 previous studies conducted between 1989 and 2017.
They looked at how varying personal and social factors affected a sustainable return to work following ill-health due to common mental health conditions, such as stress, depression or anxiety, and musculoskeletal disorders, including joint and back pain.
Mental health conditions and musculoskeletal disorders are recognized as the most common reasons for sick leave in developed countries.
The findings show that sustainable return to work is not the result of a single factor. Instead, it seems to be influenced by a combination of multiple personal and social factors. The strongest factors tied to achieving a sustainable return to work include the following:
- support from line managers or supervisors and co-workers;
- employees having a positive attitude and high self-efficacy (belief in their capabilities to achieve a goal or outcome);
- being younger;
- having higher levels of education.
A sustainable return to work was defined by the researchers as a stable full-time or part-time return to work to either the original or a modified job for a period of at least three months, without relapse or sickness absence re-occurrence.
“These findings will help us understand what factors may either bring about or hinder a sustainable return to work,” said lead author Abasiama Etuknwa, a postgraduate researcher at UEA.
“The relationship between the social environment and personal factors like attitudes and self-efficacy appears to impact positively on maintainable return to work outcomes.”
“Promoting a culture of support at the workplace is essential, a culture that makes returning workers feel valued, worthy and not necessarily blamed for absence, as the former would improve work attitudes and ease the transition back to work.”
The economic cost of sickness absence is growing each year. Extended sick leave is linked to reduced probability of return to work, which becomes costly for employers, increasing the urgency to help workers return early.
“To reduce costs related to sickness absence and reduce the risk of long-term disability associated with extended absence from work, there is a big need for a better understanding of the factors that either impede or facilitate a sustainable return to work for staff sick-listed with musculoskeletal and common mental health disorders,” said coauthor Dr. Kevin Daniels, professor of organizational behavior at UEA.
“Previous studies have shown how poor quality jobs can cause ill-health. However, there is also strong evidence that good quality jobs, for example those that enable reasonable work-life balance, allow staff some say in how their work is done and have supportive managers, are an important component for a speedy recovery after ill-health episodes and are generally beneficial for physical and mental health.”
Other personal factors found to affect a return to work included economic status/income, length of sickness absence, and job contract/security. There was no consistent evidence of whether gender affected sustainable return to work.
Social factors also included job crafting — employees redesigning their job task to fit their motives, strengths and passions — and its related practices, such as employee-initiated changes to their job or how work is done.
The authors say the review gives employers and policymakers a better understanding of the key factors that will help with implementing more effective return-to-work programs.
“Existing return to work programs need to encourage supportive interactions between leaders and co-workers and returning workers during the process, especially as this could have a direct effect on sustainable return to work, as well as an indirect effect through enhanced returners’ attitudes towards work and self-efficacy,” said Etuknwa.
Source: University of East Anglia