How to manage a return to work
A successful return to work for an employee with disability requires some simple planning by both you and the employee.
This step by step guide helps you plan and manage a return to work for an employee with disability.
Step 1—Understand your employee's abilities and relevant restrictions
Your employee will be the best source of information about their abilities and any restrictions or limitations resulting from their disability or injury. You should therefore plan to meet with your employee, either in person or by phone, to discuss and obtain a clear understanding of their abilities and restrictions.
It is also important to confirm that the employee has received medical approval to return to work and to determine whether the return to work will be gradual or immediate. For clarity, a position description or duty statement should be forwarded to your employee’s general practitioner or health practitioner to ensure informed approval for a return to work is obtained.
Specific instructions should be sought as to whether a graduated return to work is required, such as reduced days and/or hours initially, or whether restricted duties are required for a short period. A graduated return to work:
- allows your employee to develop their work specific fitness
- assists them in managing any anxieties regarding the return to work
- can be tailored to the needs of both you and your employee
- may involve an upgrade to full hours and duties in a few days, weeks or months.
Step 2—Review the job description and inherent job requirements
Inherent requirements, or job essentials, are tasks that must be carried out in order to get the job done. This information can be found in a job description or duty statement that is often part of an employee’s employment contract.
The job description should be reviewed with the employee to check whether:
- they are able to complete the inherent requirements of the job, based on their abilities and restrictions
- workplace modifications or adjustments are required to assist them complete the inherent requirements of the job.
The review should consider the:
- postures required to complete the inherent requirements of the job
- general physical demands
- tools or equipment used by your employee, including the general positioning of shared materials needed to carry out basic duties
- time spent on various tasks
- daily workflow
- access to the workplace to ensure that all necessary areas are accessible, including meeting rooms, amenities and general staff areas.
For information on understanding job descriptions and inherent requirements, visit:
Step 3—Implement workplace modifications or adjustments
Communication with your employee prior to the return to work date allows an open discussion about any parts of the role or workplace that may need modification. If modifications or adjustments are required to the workplace, including essential tools, these should be implemented prior to your employee returning to work.
Examples of modifications and adjustments include:
- adjustable desks and chairs
- adjustable counters and worktops
- larger monitor screens
- modified keyboards
- telephone adaptations including headsets
- task rotation within your employee’s duty list to accommodate any new tolerances
- changes to the organisation of standard breaks
- additional structure such as the introduction of timetables and checklists.
Professional assistance may be required if your employee’s disability is significant, or if their disability requires significant modifications or adjustments to the workplace. A workplace assessment could be undertaken to evaluate your employee’s access to the workplace and assist in determining what adjustments can be made to help your employee return to work.
You may be eligible for financial help if you need to make workplace modifications for an employee with disability. The Employment Assistance Fund pays for the costs involved in modifying the workplace or purchasing special equipment for eligible employees with disability. Workplace assessors are also able to conduct assessments to identify and remove barriers in the workplace for people with disability.
The JobAccess Advisers can assist you with arranging a free workplace assessment as part of an application under the Employment Assistance Fund. You can phone the JobAccess Advisers on 1800 464 800 or contact them online:
For information on workplace modifications and adjustments, visit:
Step 4—An agreed Return to Work Plan
A Return to Work Plan is a helpful document that you (or an assisting rehabilitation professional) should prepare for any return to work. Requirements regarding the development of Return to Work Plans may vary, so you should check with your relevant state or territory WorkCover Authority for more information. Contact details for the state and territory authorities are available by visiting:
The Return to Work Plan needs to clearly include:
- your employee’s job title
- a summary of duties
- starting and finishing times
- break times
- any specific restrictions or recommendations (as per medical certificate)
- the details of the supervisors or managers responsible for monitoring progress of the Return to Work Plan
- a time schedule for upgrades, if a gradual return to work is in place.
You should go through the Return to Work Plan in detail with all significant parties on the day your employee returns to work. All parties should sign the Return to Work Plan to indicate their agreement to, and understanding of, their obligations as part of the plan.
It is also important to establish a system for monitoring and managing any new issues in the initial return to work period, as this will ensure a successful return to work in the long term.
If an employee discloses a disability, you are required to keep all information confidential. In order to share the information about an employee’s disability with other people within your organisation, including co-workers, you must get written consent from your employee.
For detailed information on disclosure and privacy, visit:
A successful return to work requires clear and appropriate communication with all direct co-workers so as to avoid misunderstanding and anxiety caused by contradicting expectations. To assist co-workers with return to work situations consider the following:
- Co-workers are a valuable resource when considering task modifications and inherent job requirements. Brainstorming opportunities with co-workers can assist with this process, particularly if the modifications have the potential to impact on them. Ensure that any brainstorming exercise focuses on issues and adjustments in the workplace and not the disability or medical condition of the employee returning to work.
- Provide opportunities for co-workers to express any concerns with their supervisors or managers in a timely manner.
- Everyone has different degrees of exposure to people with disability. Disability awareness training may assist co-workers by providing information on facts, research, tips for communication and tips for accommodations.
For more information on disability awareness see: