Returning to work following an absence due to injury or illness can be a complicated and multifaceted process. The direct costs to Australian businesses due to lost productivity associated with employee absence have been estimated at AU$3.08 billion (from 2012 to 2013). However, this figure excludes additional costs to both individual employees (e.g., lost wages, medical costs, claims expenses), employers (e.g., absenteeism, presenteeism, insurance levy), and the wider community.

The resumption of employment following an injury or illness is a critical step in the recovery process and has been linked to both subjective wellbeing and overall life satisfaction. The implications of enhancing these employee recovery processes will produce considerable benefits for both the individual worker and the wider economy.

As part of the first phase of national initiatives under the National Return to Work Strategy 2020-2030, Safe Work Australia commissioned this independent research reports from Griffith University. In this report, WOW members Paula Brough, Carys Chan, Darren Wishart, Jason Spedding and Mitchell Raper explore the psychological reactions and influences around workplace injury and illness and make recommendations on practical strategies that can be implemented in the workplace.


This research sought to advance knowledge and to generate recommendations regarding:

  • The types and prevalence of different psychological reactions exhibited by workers who have sustained an injury or illness;
  • The known antecedents, risk factors, enablers, or barriers which put employees at risk of these psychological reactions, and when during employee recovery processes these antecedents are observed; and
  • The practical processes that can be implemented to provide support for employees currently experiencing a psychological reaction to a work absence caused by an injury or illness.

Additionally, the report highlights current research gaps and future avenues of research pertaining to psychological reactions experienced by employees during their recovery and subsequent return to work.

Summary of findings

From the findings, the project produced six key recommendations for organisations, managers, employees, scholars to enhance successful return to work:

1. Enhance employee screening processes for psychological injury risk factors – Identify opportunities to more effectively target specific indicators of delayed return to work, and negative psychological reactions to injury/illness.

2. Increase early intervention and contact during employee recovery – Enhance support for earlier intervention and regular contact in return to work process.

3. Enhance support services, training and communication materials – Greater support to both injured employees and key stakeholders (including supervisors, managers, regulators, and health professionals) in managing psychological reactions and employee recovery.

4. Provide greater access to workplace accommodations – Support further development and normalisation of workplace accommodations during employee recovery.

5. Increase employee empowerment in return to work process- Greater control, autonomy, and consultation regarding return to work decisions and planning processes.

6. Conduct further research on the effectiveness of return to work interventions – Investigate the causal processes which underlie the relationship between psychological reactions and shorter return to work outcomes.

The report will inform further initiatives under the Strategy which will build on and apply the findings through further research and development of template national messaging for regulators, employers, educators, insurers and workers and their representatives.