Managing Someone Returning to Work

Not all disabilities are present at birth. Many people acquire disability through an accident, illness or the ageing process.

A successful return to work for an employee with acquired disability requires some simple planning on behalf of the employer and the employee.

Before returning to work, it is essential to communicate and discuss the following questions:

Is there a clear understanding of the inherent job requirements?

Inherent requirements are the essential activities of the job; the core duties that must be carried out in order to fulfil the purpose of the position. Inherent requirements relate to results, or what must be accomplished, rather than means, or how it is accomplished.

The inherent requirements of a job are:

  • The fundamental tasks that define a job
  • Not all of the requirements of a job
  • About achieving results rather than the means for achieving a result.

This information can be found in a duty statement or job description that is often part of an employee’s employment contract.

The duty statement should be reviewed to check whether any modifications or adjustments are required to enable the employee to complete their job requirements. The review should consider the following:

  • Postures required
  • General physical demands
  • Tools or equipment used
  • Time spent on various tasks
  • Daily workflow
  • Access to the workplace.

Is there a clear shared understanding of the employee’s abilities and relevant restrictions?

The employee will be the expert on their abilities and relevant restrictions. However, it is important to confirm that the employee has received medical approval to return to work, and to determine whether their return will be gradated or immediate.

For clarity, a duty statement or job description should be forwarded to the worker’s health practitioner to ensure you receive informed approval for a return to work. The employer should seek specific instructions as to whether a gradated start is required, and also whether restricted duties are required for a limited period.

Upgrading to full hours and duties may take time. This can be valuable, as it allows the worker to gradually develop work-specific fitness and assists in managing any anxieties the return to work may bring.

Is there an agreed plan for the specific details of returning to work?

Communication prior to the return to work date is essential to allow an open discussion about any parts of the role or workplace that may need modification.

Professional assistance may be required if an employee’s disability is significant, or if their disability requires significant adjustments. A workplace assessment can be undertaken to evaluate the employee’s access to the workplace and assist in determining what adjustments need to be made.

A Return to Work Plan (RTW Plan) is a helpful document which should be prepared by the employer (or an assisting rehabilitation professional) for any return to work. Your relevant state or territory WorkCover Authority can assist you with a RTW Plan.

An RTW plan should:

  • Be developed in consultation with the injured employee and the treating medical practitioner.
  • Be individualised, outcome-based and set out the steps to be followed in achieving the return to work.
  • Recognise the existing skills, experience and capabilities of the injured employee.
  • Identify job title and summary of duties.
  • Include starting and finishing times, and break times.
  • Specify any restrictions or recommendations (as per medical certificate).
  • Identify supervisors or managers responsible for the monitoring progress.
  • If a gradual return to work is in place, a time schedule for upgrade must be included (these can be modified in the future).
  • Be explained in detail with the significant parties on the day the worker returns to work.
  • Should be signed off by all parties to indicate their agreement to and understanding of their obligations as part of the plan.

JobAccess, a free service for all Australians, is a very useful resource for employers. The JobAccess Advisers can be contacted via free call on 1800 464 800 or online at the JobAccess website.

Planning a return to work without professional assistance

When planning the return to work of an employee without professional assistance, it is important to consider the following:

  • Access to the workplace
  • Tools and equipment
  • Changes to work flow and work systems (see note below)

For general mobility, check all necessary areas are accessible. This includes meeting rooms, amenities and general staff areas.

For physical restrictions consider modifications to the essential tools.

For example:

  • Adjustable desks and chairs
  • Counters and worktops
  • Larger monitor screens
  • Modified keyboards
  • Telephone adaptations including headsets.

You should also check general positioning of shared materials needed to carry out basic duties, and how this will impact the employee’s colleagues.

Changes to work flow and work systems

Consider task rotation within the employee’s duty list to accommodate any new tolerances.

You should also check any particular changes to the organisation of standard breaks.  For example, is additional structure required to assist the employee to return to work, such as the introduction of timetables and checklists?


In order to avoid any misunderstanding and anxiety caused by contradicting expectations, a successful return to work requires clear and appropriate communication with all direct colleagues. To assist colleagues with return to work situations, consider the following strategies:

  • Colleagues are a valuable resource when considering task modifications and inherent job requirements. Brainstorming opportunities can assist with this process, particularly if the modifications have the potential to impact on colleagues.
  • Everyone has different degrees of exposure to people with disability. Disability awareness training, including addressing myths and tips for communication, may assist colleagues.
  • Provide opportunities for colleagues to express any concerns to their superiors in a timely manner. 

Early intervention

Identifying illness, injury, or any possible cause of disability as early as possible is strongly recommended to improve outcomes. Commencing intervention/rehabilitation as soon as possible after injury sets an expectation of an early return to work. In most cases, this leads to better work outcomes and reduces the human and financial costs associated with workers compensation claims or other forms of leave.

Employers, once aware of an employee’s injury, illness or disability, may provide rehabilitation as either:

  • Non-compensable rehabilitation assessment and program. For example, if an employee’s injury is not incurred in the course of employment.
  • Compensable rehabilitation assessment and program under sections 36 and 37 of the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. For example, if an employee’s injury is incurred in the course of their employment.

Getting back to work can reduce the financial and emotional impact of an injury on an employee and their family. It can be an important factor in helping them recover and return to normal life.