The 26-week return-to-work rate improved over the second half of 2019 and into early 2020, recording 82 per cent in both March and April this year. This rate is expected to remain steady.
Since March there has been a reduction in suitable duties available to previously injured workers limiting the opportunities for returning to work, and the number of new claims has declined as many workers face reduced hours or were stood down.
"These are significant challenges which are placing pressure on return-to-work rates. Despite this, we remain focused on doing everything we can to support workers and employers in the current environment, and keeping return-to-work rates as stable as possible," said Elizabeth Uehling, Group Executive Personal Injury.
"The efforts of the insurance regulator, SIRA, to develop operational return to work assistance programs are appreciated—it's clear they're aware of the potential impact COVID-19 could have on return-to-work outcomes across all sectors."
While access to telehealth services has expanded to ensure workers continue to receive as much treatment as possible during the pandemic, some injured workers' recovery has been delayed with most elective surgery stopping from late March to late April. This in turn has had an impact on affected workers returning to work.
"This pattern we are experiencing of lower claims and injured workers' longer time off work is consistent with previous economic downturns. In response, we are working closely with our claims service partners to maximise opportunities for injured workers to rejoin the workforce," Ms Uehling said.
Returning to work offers substantial benefits for both injured workers and their employers. For workers, there are not only financial benefits in returning to work, it has also been proven to assist in recovery and support better long-term outcomes. However, the longer a worker is away from the workforce the less likely they are to return to employment. For employers, maintaining a connection with an injured worker is critical, and our COVID-19 research literature also emphasises maintaining connections with a disbursed workforce is key to a successful return to work.
"We're monitoring the experience of mental health claims in New Zealand where there's been a significant increase in mental health issues as restrictions are eased and people return to the workplace. This is another key challenge for employers as they support a workforce that has increased anxieties and has been subject to significant personal and employment change," Ms Uehling said.
During the pandemic, icare case managers have been working closely with employers and injured workers to explore avenues for return to work. Depending on individual circumstances, there's a number of initiatives and strategies available to give workers the best chance in returning to paid employment including:
- Discussing alternative treatment pathways with healthcare providers if planned treatment such as surgery has been delayed.
- As businesses reopen, re-engaging injured workers with their pre-injury employer if suitable duties weren't available during the peak of the pandemic.
- Assisting employers to identify and provide return-to-work opportunities in a work from home environment. icare can support ergonomic assessments and the purchase of ergonomic equipment as required by some workers when they are returning to work at home or onsite.
- Accessing programs that provide financial incentives for employers to hire staff with an existing workers compensation claim whose pre-injury employer couldn't provide work.
"We also leverage the expertise of workplace rehabilitation providers for those workers where the challenges of returning to work are more complex," said Ms Uehling.
"These Providers understand how the labour market has changed in response to the pandemic and are able to tailor their services to ensure workers are retraining and seeking employment in industries that are hiring."
The reality is that most employers are keen to support the return of injured workers where it can be accommodated, and to assist them to find ways back to full employment and productivity. In many instances our case managers and rehabilitation providers are assisting employers in the planning and coordination of these return to work activities.