Return to Work… A Form of Therapy?

You might not believe it, or you might not want to believe it, but the research is clear. Work is good for you. 

With our role in the Life Insurance space and Compensable schemes, achieving a return to work with our clients is often top priority. But it’s not just to keep our referrers happy! We know that there are many benefits of work (we wrote about it previously here). For many people, work provides a sense of purpose that is core to their personal identity, self-confidence, and feelings of self-worth. 

Naturally, being away from work for extended periods of time can have negative consequences for health – in particular relating to mental health – which can then double down on the severity of physical symptoms. The longer spent away from work, the bigger the problem, and the harder it is to recover. But can returning to work be therapeutic in its own right?


Chronic unemployment is a problem in itself.

Being away from work for long periods can actually become a barrier to returning to work. Having been chronically unemployed or on leave due to health reasons makes it significantly harder to achieve a successful return to work, and a return to a normal, productive life. 

It’s understandable why this is the case. Humans are adaptable creatures. When unemployment becomes the norm, it also means that sleeping in later, spending more time at home, and living by our own schedule becomes the norm. We very quickly become comfortable in this new routine. This can take a hit on confidence too, making the thought of returning to work an intimidating one! The longer we are entrenched in this lifestyle, the harder it becomes to break the mold and return to the ‘9 to 5’. 

Motivation to return to work diminishes, as do any feelings of self-efficacy and empowerment about re-entering the workforce.


A more hopeful perspective?

Return to work exercise physiology

When it’s appropriate to do so, work itself can become part of the therapy that helps an individual fully recover and move past their illness or injury.  After all, what better a way to get them back working full time than to give them exposure to the exact environment, tasks and duties that they will be returning to? Talk about rehabilitation specificity!

“There is a strong evidence base supporting workplace-based rehabilitation, which can be more effective than clinic-based treatment for RTW.” (1)

For this reason, we like to integrate work of some form – whether paid or voluntary – as part of our programs. The sooner we can break the cycle of not working, the better chances we have of achieving a sustainable return to work. Early intervention is key!

“The support for early intervention is strong. It is one of the most effective ‘measures against long-term benefit dependence’ ” (1)

What can employers do?

  • When a staff member is injured or unwell but they still have the capacity for work, encourage them to do what they can do. Look for alternate duties, or aim for a reduction in hours as opposed to a clean break. Find ways to maximise their capabilities and help them maintain a sense of self-efficacy.  
  • Create a positive environment on return. If they feel like a valued member of the team, the chances of a successful return to work are much higher.
  • Work with their treating practitioners to support them through a “workplace-based rehabilitation” program. Being actively involved in the process and willing to work around their limitations will ensure that they are sustainable in their efforts to return to work. 

Work is good for us, which is why – in whatever way possible – we look to make it an integral part of our programs. We know the challenges that come with extended periods away from work, but we also know that there are things we can all do (EP’s, other allied health and employers alike) to mitigate these challenges and make for the best long-term outcomes for our clients! 



This article was heavily based on the great information presented in the following document:

  1. Principles of Best Practice in Occupational Rehabilitation for AIA Australia – July 2014 – Written by Petrina Casey in consultation with Professor Ian Cameron.


Author: Yolanda van Vugt 
Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Content Creator at Specialised Health


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