Are your front-line supervisors supporting your injured workers_

Published on 21 Dec 2020

Two employees sitting and speaking candidly in a well lit room

The Institute for Work and Health (IWH) recently completed a study of disability management in large, complex organisations.

Researchers found that the most common “communication bottlenecks” involved case managers (experienced in managing return to work (RTW) cases, whether work-related or not) and front-line supervisors.

There is wide acknowledgement that good communication prevents return-to-work delays, inadequate support for the worker and, not least, mistrust and ill-will all round.

According to the study, published in April in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation the information gaps experienced by one of these two roles can affect the work of the other, creating ripple effects throughout the entire organizational work disability management system.

As a result, “efforts to address the communication challenges faced by case managers and front-line supervisors should be prioritised” says Dr. Arif Jetha, an IWH scientist and lead author of the study.

What are the communication challenges involving front-line supervisors?

Participants spoke of front-line supervisors as ideal employer representatives to initiate and sustain dialogue with an injured or ill worker and to obtain the information needed for absence management.

However, participants also described front-line supervisors as sometimes unaware of disability or injury management policies and unprepared to engage with injured workers in these types of conversations. Such interactions were more difficult in cases involving mental health conditions and in cases where there had been a history of poor work performance.

A common issue described by participants was a lack of consistency among front-line supervisors, who had different levels of experience and competence with respect to return to work.

When reflecting on the role of supervisors, one case manager noted that some supervisors were more familiar with the process while others only connected with the case management department when it was too late.

“It’s certainly not consistent across management. Sometimes, we don’t know someone is off work until the person runs out of sick time,” said the case manager.

Participants also spoke of the ripple effects across the system. When a supervisor faced difficulty communicating with an injured worker, that would affect the ability of a case manager to engage in conversations with the injured worker to support return to work. The result would be avoidable absence days.

These findings underscore the need to examine disability management practices at an organizational level, says Jetha.

He added that findings from this study highlight the need for strategies that specifically target front-line supervisors and case managers and are designed to improve communication and coordination. These might include:

  • Improving coordination with external stakeholders who may lack insight into the specific workplace context.
  • Leveraging information management systems or interventions that foster communication across diverse stakeholders in large organizations.
  • Promoting goodwill and trust between workers and supervisors prior to injury to facilitate information exchange following a disability absence – especially important in mental health cases.
  • Offering uniform training to supervisors across an organization to increase awareness regarding their roles and responsibilities in the RTW of employees and relevant communication strategies.

Jetha said one key message to come out of this study is sometimes small changes to disability management practices can have a significant impact on communication.

That’s especially the case when the changes address crucial points in the systems where communication blockages tend to occur.