Injured and laid up? Whose job is it to get you back to work?
No-one wants to suffer an injury, but it happens. However if, during your leisure time, you sustain an injury that prevents you from working, whose problem is it? Does your employer have any obligation to help you recover from your injury and return to work?
Although the legal answer is ‘no’, Paul Wimpenny, Clinical Governance Officer at Physio Med, explains why employers should be doing everything in their power to keep their staff healthy, productive and at work, as well as the measures they can take to achieve this and the positive benefits a wellbeing policy can have.
In England in 2016, almost half of the reported 1.25 million work related injuries were musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and yet, according to The Institution of Safety and Health, 53% of MSDs treated by doctors were non-work related, meaning the overall majority were sustained at home or whilst taking part in leisure activities.
These figures raise an interesting question: if you suffer an injury in your own time and it stops you from working, whose responsibility is it to get you back to work and up to full capacity?
On your own
If you suffer an injury whilst at work, the likelihood is that your employer would or should provide support designed to help you return to work quickly and safely. But if you suffer an injury outside of work, you’re largely on your own because, according to the Government-funded Fit for Work initiative, “It is not the responsibility of the employer to get an employee fit again. That lays with the employee and their doctors as their primary carer.”
However, as Fit for Work further explains: “The employer may wish to try and support the employee back to work sooner, rather than waiting until they are fully fit if the employee is on long term sick.”
This suggests there are only two options for employees – either to return to work as soon as possible whether you are fully fit or not, or remain absent from work for an extended, potentially significant, amount of time – and personally I don’t think either option is a good one!
For an employer, having a key member of staff absent for a long period can have a huge impact on the business both financially and from an efficiency perspective. However, the impact to businesses of presenteeism – the phenomenon whereby employees are at work but are not fully fit, leading to a reduction in productivity levels and potentially slowing down the rehabilitation period – can be just as serious.
And, from the employee’s point of view, prolonged periods of absence can impact long-term career prospects, while working when not completely fit can have health implications and result in minor conditions becoming more serious and enduring.
Support and rehabilitate
Whatever the legal position, from the employer’s perspective it seems to be in the interest of all parties to put measures in place to support and rehabilitate employees no matter what the cause of their injury or absence.
For example, imagine what would happen if you suffered an injury tonight at your step class, playing five-a-side, or even emptying the dishwasher, and you couldn’t make it into the office tomorrow. You, your colleagues and your employer would all suffer for the duration of your absence.
If you can’t go to work, your tasks will either not be completed or someone else will have to do them for you. This, in turn, means that one (or several) of your colleagues will either have to suffer an increased workload, or prioritise your work instead of their own, creating a backlog. This can also potentially increase both stress levels and instances of psychosocial absences amongst your colleagues. Stress, in particular, is currently a bigger factor in workplace absences than ever before. Meanwhile, all this impacts the profitability of the company due to the decreases in productivity and efficiency.
Additionally, many organisations only employ the minimum amount of staff in order to maximise profitability, so it is common practice to replace absent staff members with temporary ones. However, the average cost of a ‘temp’ is higher than the cost of a core member of staff, which further impacts profitability and, in all probability, productivity, as the temp is unlikely to be able to work as effectively as the person whose absence they are covering.
Meanwhile, you are at home contemplating an extended absence. For example, a musculoskeletal injury which requires physiotherapy treatment and subsequent rehabilitation can begin with a week-long absence before your doctor sees you and refers you for physiotherapy. You may then have to wait six weeks for the physiotherapy appointment, meaning you’ve potentially been absent for seven weeks. If the physiotherapist then wants to see you again in a fortnight, you could be looking at an absence of nine weeks or more.
So, legally it is not your boss’s responsibility to help you return to work but, let’s be clear, it is in their best interests. Flipping the situation, if your employer was injured, they would do everything in their power to return to work safely and quickly, as this protects the bottom line, maintains productivity levels and avoids adding more stress to the rest of the work force. Surely it makes sense that these principles should apply to everyone; after all, everyone is susceptible to injury.
Care and support
There are many ways that employers can provide care and support their employees, but having a health and wellbeing strategy in place is the most sensible. By providing employees with access to an occupational health service, employers can help safeguard against illness and injury and, when something does go wrong, employees will be helped to get back on their feet and back to full capacity. This could involve phased returns to work and amended duties.
By including access to occupational physiotherapy into the OH mix, employees can be treated more quickly instead of waiting for NHS treatment, helping to reduce their pain levels, get them back to work more quickly and increase their productivity. Preventative measures can also help to reduce the risk of further absences due to the recurrence of MSDs.
The fact that most MSDs actually occur outside of work needs to be reflected in policy making. It’s essentially irrelevant where an injury takes place – the effects to the company, its employees and the finances are exactly the same – so we need to move away from the differentiation.
The workplace is changing. Today, more than ever, almost all jobs require teamwork in order to succeed and a flexible approach to occupational health will help to enable this. Employers need to be convinced collectively that it’s in their best interests to get their employees as fit as possible, as safely and quickly as possible, and then maintain it, for the good of the entire business and the UK economy.