More than 500,000 Australians suffer from injuries or diseases related to employment every year, costing the economy almost $62 billion. The Australian Government recognises the huge economic and human cost of the problem and has recently released the National Return to Work Strategy 2020-2030. Safe Work Australia CEO Michelle Baxter says, “Workers are at the heart of the strategy. We want to help them recover and return to a safe and supportive workplace.”
The comeback conundrum
Worker welfare is at the core of governmental response. So what changes are required to address the problem? How are outcomes best improved for those who’ve been sidelined by physical or mental illness? And who will drive these changes?
Ask anyone about their first experience of the workforce, and you’ll hear stories of daunting challenges and unforeseen obstacles. For even the most confident of us, it’s often a time of trepidation and uncertainty. Returning to employment can be even more intimidating, particularly if you’re coming back from a work-related illness.
The Strategy looks at two major issues. Firstly, employees must be the focus and ultimate beneficiaries when implementing new and better policies. Secondly, business leaders, supervisors, and human resources staff will play a critical role in its’ success. Therefore, it’s a great time to get your qualifications updated in order to be a part of the solution, particularly in the fields of HR and business management.
The hidden human cost
The number of serious workers’ compensation claims has fallen over the past decade, but it’s not all good news. In the same period, the average recovery time has blown out by 32% to almost six weeks. Just think about that for a moment. When did you last have six weeks in a row off work? Even if you’ve ever been so lucky, you probably spent that time away enjoying yourself with the family, on holiday overseas, or just relaxing on a beach.
Imagine spending that same period dealing with the physical and mental stress of illness, perhaps much of it laid up in bed, hour upon hour of rehabilitation, dealing with confusing paperwork, and endless other sources of stress.
Often, the most severe illnesses are also ‘invisible’ or psychological. These type of injuries make up less than ten per cent of claims, but sufferers spend more than three times as long away from work (17 weeks compared to 5.8 weeks for physical injuries).
Even worse, only 58% of workers with psychological injuries returned to work, compared to nearly 80% of those with physical injuries. The role of workplace staff, such as those in the human resources sector, has never been more critical to help smooth an employees’ transition back to the workplace.
Prevention better than cure
It makes sense from a human perspective, and a cost perspective, to ensure these workers can get back to their workplace smoothly. Those in charge of helping them should think seriously about furthering their education and updating their skills with a diploma qualification. A well regarded educational qualification within your industry will prompt positive changes in all areas related to workplace wellness, from both an employee’s and employer’s perspective.
Psychological injuries create a unique set of challenges. Not only is the human cost a tragic one, but it’s expensive to fix too. Mental health compensation payments average $24,500, compared to $9,000 for all other types of claims. Of these, more than nine in ten are caused by mental stress, while 41% are caused by harassment, bullying or exposure to violence.
Older workers are also most susceptible, with 60% of claims awarded to workers aged 40 or more. From this, we know that managers and HR professionals can play a proactive role in helping prevent situations from arising before they reach a critical stage.
Work pressure and harassment or bullying are easily the most common causes, and poor workplace support or relationships, and substandard environmental conditions are major contributing factors. These are all issues that can be identified and addressed at an early stage if those in charge know what signs to look for in their staff.
Suddenly, the value of a respected, intuitive, and professional HR employee becomes very clear, and a Diploma in Human Resources Management (BSB50320) through the College for Adult Learning is a great start. A course that can be completed around work hours and other life commitments is perfect for somebody looking to affect real change in their workplace.
Plan to be part of the solution
Formalised return to work plans are either compulsory or strongly encouraged in every Australian jurisdiction, and with good reason. Within the first month of a claim, workers with a plan were 1.7 times more likely to re-integrate successfully to the workplace, a figure that doubles once the plan is formalised in writing.
Yet only about two-thirds of claimants report having any kind of plan at all. The employers’ role (and that of their human resources department) in this instance is clear. There are, of course, strict obligations for government agencies under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 to support injured workers. Even in private enterprise, workers with a positive attitude about returning to work are far more likely to achieve that goal.
Encouragement and support, from the insurer to the boss, is critical. An empathetic approach from human resources staff, coupled with recent diploma qualification in an area such as Human Resources, Business Management or Practice Management, gives you powerful tools to maximise the chances of a smooth transition back to work.
We all want our colleagues to get better as quickly as possible, and it’s a proven fact that returning to work can drastically aid the recovery process. Imagine the sense of job satisfaction if you were a key component of that result.
The nuts and bolts of a good program
So what does a successful return to work program look like? Certainly there’s evidence that the larger the firm, the more options it’s likely to have in terms of what it can offer workers.
Data from the National Return to Work Strategy 2018 survey indicates nearly 60% of companies were able to offer modified or alternative jobs upon the employees’ return. Even before then, there’s a range of measures that can be taken to assist a workers’ recovery.
- 1. Don’t be afraid to keep in touch with a worker during their absence. In most cases, communication doesn’t just assist their recovery, and it recognises their value to the employer.
- 2. Listen to what the employee needs, and try to understand any management or work design factors that may have contributed to their illness (particularly if it’s a psychological condition).
- 3. Set realistic goals for their return. Recognise that the workplace may have to change to accommodate a successful return to work. For the physically impaired, that could require adjustable desks or chairs, modified telephones or larger monitors.
- 4. In other cases, even small changes to traditional workflows may have a huge positive impact on peoples’ mental health, including the preventative side.
- 5. Be willing to ask the injured workers’ colleagues for input into the return to work strategy. Those with a good understanding of their co-workers’ strengths and weaknesses (and even personalities) can come up with great ideas to assist their colleagues’ re-integration.
Be a key player in improving lives
We’ve already established the critical role Human Resources professionals can play in assisting injured employees back to the workplace. Having a passion that potentially begins with early intervention right through to developing a tailor-made return to work plan is important.
The HR field is full of experienced, talented individuals with amazingly diverse career backgrounds. Many have transitioned to the field by starting in an administrative role and gradually accepted more and more HR related roles within that job. Others have studied subjects such as sociology or psychology.
Even if you have to move companies to pursue your passion for HR, assessing the job skills you’ve learned that are relevant, and highlighting them in your CV, can give you a decisive edge in a competitive field. Nothing compares to a diploma that you can study at your own pace, before or after work hours, to get that qualification you need.
Diplomas through RTOs like the College For Adult Learning take less time than a degree, yet arm you with the vital skills you’ll need to transition careers. Employers value such qualifications highly. Experience pays well too, with the average annual HR Manager salary in Australia at $130,000.
If job satisfaction is just as important to you, then it’s hard to imagine a career that’s more rewarding. You’ll have direct access to senior management and be a key part of shaping a company’s attitude towards it’s most important asset: its’ people. Your central role will contribute to peoples’ lives for the better, often during the exact time that they need your help the most. The National Return to Work Strategy 2020-2030 is an important tool for every Australian company looking to be at the forefront of best practice human resources.
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