Integrating Psychosocial Risks Into Return to Work Plans

For achieving total health and taking care of workers, return to work plans matter. Return to work plans can be a component of an integrated disability management system, tied to employee accommodation and attendance support.

If not managed properly, employee disability-related absences can have significant impact on profitability, employee engagement and organizational efficiency (International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans).

A return to work plan is a tool for managers to proactively help ill or injured employees return to productive employment in a timely and safe manner. The priority is to return the employee to the position they held prior to the absence, in terms of their routines, workplace and co-workers (Government of Canada). Gradually incorporating work demands into a worker’s recovery may help to improve their chances of staying healthy. Work may benefit overall health by providing structure and routine, social interaction and a sense of accomplishment. Further, many workers can safely perform productive and meaningful work while they are recovering from an injury or illness, including is an illness which may be episodic (Manulife).

The longer a worker is off work due to illness or disability, the less likelihood there is of them ever returning to work. Therefore, there is a compelling case for assisting ill or injured workers to return to work as quickly as possible.

- 50% return to their place of employment after a six-month absence

- 20% return to their place of employment after a year

(International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans)

As outlined by the Institute for Work and Health, return to work plans can include programs and practices under the categories of service coordination, health-focused, and work modification. The purpose of this article is to elaborate on the work modification category.

In order for work modification programs and practices to be as effective, efficient, and appropriate, in terms of factors such as modified duties, modified working hours, or equipment and/or workstation modifications, psychosocial factors can be considered. The International Standard for Occupational Health and Safety Management — Psychological Health and Safety at Work (ISO 45003) defines psychosocial risks to include aspects of work organization, social factors at work, work environment, equipment and hazardous tasks. In addition, The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety (the Standard) also encompasses psychosocial risks, defining psychosocial risks as hazards including elements of the work environment, management practices, and/or organizational dimensions that increase the risk to health. Psychosocial hazards can be present in all organizations and sectors, from all kinds of work tasks, equipment and employment arrangements.

Design and improvement strategies for return to work plans, and thus for integrated disability management systems tied to employee accommodation and attendance support, can include strategies which identify and manage psychosocial risks in a proactive manner, obtaining involvement from employees. By doing so, return to work plans can promote stakeholder sensitivity to the physical, psychological, social and vocational consequences of disability. This message is mentioned in ISO 45003, through the following text:

“When designing RTW programs, the organization should take into account that workers can be at increased potential for exposure to psychosocial risks as part of the return-to-work process. For example, work adjustments to facilitate return to work can result in changes to work tasks, relationships and social interaction, supervision, work culture, and perceptions of achievement and value at work.”

How to put this into action

Action can be at the manager and team level.

“Managers are crucial in the sustainability of return to work plans as they are the ones who, on a daily basis, match employees to tasks, assign and lead work, and evaluate work performance. Managers certainly need to know the business rules and policies they must adhere to in managing cases of employee illness and injury. However, it is their people management skills that make the difference in creating a healthy and productive workplace, encouraging employees to maintain their health and well-being, and supporting employees in their recovery from illness or injury to increase the likelihood that they can stay at work or successfully return to work (Government of Canada).”

The image below illustrates how the first point of contact in the disability management process, including return to work plans, is more often than not the direct supervisor/manager.

Full source: Disability Management: Opportunities for Employer Action — Conference Board of Canada, compliments of Sun Life Financial and the Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care.

What managers and teams can do is hold On The Agenda workshops in order to address psychosocial risks. Using the On The Agenda free workshop materials and facilitator tools by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health (Canada Life) helps to gather worker input about what workers are willing to contribute and what they feel is required to address specific psychosocial risks and support a psychologically healthier and safer workplace. The end result is an action plan to make thoughtful and effective policy and process changes relevant to consider with return to work plans. Another resource called Creating Change can help further with developing evidence-based psychological health and safety policies and strategies. Note, another means to assess psychosocial risks in the workplace is using a survey tool called Guarding Minds at Work.

To comment on the implementation of the On The Agenda workshops, a minimum one hour session can be used to go through a presentation for a specific psychosocial risk and gather worker feedback. Then, a report can be created from the feedback gathered in the workshop from the comments and ideas workers provided. Have the senior leadership identify the ideas they approve for implementation. For simple ideas, begin implementation along with measurements to evaluate the impact. For more complex ideas, develop a detailed implementation plan with stakeholders, responsibilities, timelines, and evaluation (Workplace Strategies for Mental Health).

When managers and teams have these proactive conversations about psychosocial risks, and the learnings are reflected in return to work plans to strengthen disability management systems, return to work plans can be that much more effective, efficient, and appropriate. This is why, as the final content piece in this article, the Institute for Work and Health reflects these learnings of managers and teams identifying and managing psychosocial risks in their Seven Principles for a Successful Return to Work:

1. The workplace has a strong commitment to health and safety, which is demonstrated by the workplace parties.

2. The employer makes an offer of modified work (that is, work accommodation) to injured and ill workers so that they can return in a safe and timely manner to work activities that are suitable for their abilities.

3. Return-to-work planners ensure that their plans support returning workers.

4. Managers are trained in work disability prevention and included in return-to-work planning.

5. The employer makes a timely and considerate contact with injured and ill workers.

6. Someone has the responsibility to coordinate an employee’s return to work.

7. With the worker’s consent, employers and health care providers communicate with each other about workplace demands as needed.


Nathan Kolar,




Nathan helps companies become more productive while simultaneously being humane. #employeehealth #organizationalhealth LinkedIn:

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Nathan Kolar

Nathan Kolar

Nathan helps companies become more productive while simultaneously being humane. #employeehealth #organizationalhealth LinkedIn:

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