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Supervisors’ role in return-to-work process

By Mari-Len De Guzman

There are consequences for both parties for failing to meet their obligations. For employers, it means that workers will receive wage loss benefits, effectively driving up the costs of a claim.  For workers who do not cooperate, they may not receive wage loss benefits if suitable duties are available for them.

So why is it that many return-to-work programs fail? Even those organizations that have written return-to-work policies and procedures often have difficulty with helping workers return to work.  In many instances it is because the worker needs additional treatment and/or because the work offered is outside of their functional abilities. However, return to work is often impeded by a breakdown in employee relations. 

Different organizations manage return to work in different ways. Some manage it centrally, through a human resources or health and safety department. Some utilize occupational health nurses or on-site physicians to assist with these issues. For other organizations, it is often the job of the direct supervisor to implement and monitor return-to-work activities. Often, these supervisors are not provided with the tools and information they need to be effective at this task.  This can lead to a breakdown in the system if return-to-work efforts are hampered by a breakdown in labour relations.

In order to combat this, and to ensure a more effective return-to-work system, ensure that supervisors who are to manage workers’ return to work are trained in your organization’s return-to-work policies and procedures.

Ensure that they are aware of the need to contact the injured worker as soon as possible following the injury and to maintain contact throughout the period of recovery. This periodic contact and follow up should allow the supervisor to ask the worker for an update on their recovery, including what treatment they are receiving, how their recovery is progressing, any future appointments, and to discuss return to work. 

Once the worker returns to the workplace, there should be ongoing dialogue and periodic follow-up with the worker to discuss any difficulties with the return to work, and perhaps to make any adjustments. These follow-ups will also allow the supervisor to gather updated information about the worker’s recovery and ongoing treatment, if any.

Where employers and supervisors often get frustrated is when return to work becomes prolonged and when there is a lack of incoming information from the worker or health care practitioner.  Often this occurs because the claim is not being managed effectively.

Efforts should be made to gather additional information about the workers’ functional abilities in order to assist them in resuming their pre-injury duties as soon as possible. Further, consider challenging incomplete or conflicting information about the workers’ functional abilities.

Because the supervisor is often the closest link to the injured worker, they should receive training on how to handle conflict that may arise within the return-to-work process. This training should include information on how to resolve those conflicts on their own or how to escalate them within the organization or with the compensation board in order to progress with the return to work.

The supervisor can be a valuable asset in assisting workers with returning to work, following a workplace accident. An effective return-to-work program involving supervisors can help minimize the cost of compensation claims. Employers should provide supervisors with the training and tools needed to assist with and monitor return to work, as a successful return is beneficial to both the employer and worker.

David Marchione is an OHS consultant and paralegal with Toronto-based law firm, Gowlings. You can contact him at

Mari-Len De Guzman

Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and
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