Inside Disruption Blog

Time to get to work

Sarah Hathaway
June 14, 2017

In the workers’ compensation realm, it can sometimes be difficult for therapists to determine the “right time” for an employee to return to work. An employee may have experienced a robbery, shooting, or gruesome accident which makes returning to the workplace an anxiety-provoking thought. Often, the tendency is to give the employee plenty of time off, to be sure that they are entirely prepared before beginning work again. However, studies show that the longer employees remain off work, the less likely they are to return to work, and the poorer the outcomes they are likely to experience. Such outcomes can inhibit the progress made in treatment.


Worklessness can impact an employee in a number of ways:


  • Physical health: obesity, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, death
  • Mental health: depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, suicide attempts
  • Financial difficulty: decreased income, increased medical costs, loss of insurance benefits, inability to pay bills (sometimes leading to homelessness)
  • Social challenges: isolation, relationship changes, marital discord


An early return to work is imperative to helping an employee remain in the workforce. If an employee is out of work for 50 days, they have less than a 50% chance of successfully returning to work. After 90 days, that rate drops to 25%. After a year, it is almost guaranteed that the individual will never work again.


It is a therapist’s responsibility to make work a focus of treatment. It can be hard to encourage an early return to work, particularly if it may cause fear or discomfort. However, it is important to make employees aware of the risks of worklessness so that they can make educated decisions about their employment. It may be necessary to consider requesting temporary modifications to the employee’s job duties.


Potential modifications:


  • Light or moderate duty – modifying existing job or providing another job
  • Gradual return – increasing hours, duties or expectations until the employee resumes full duties
  • Work trial – either the employee or employer can discontinue work as necessary
  • Work support – a specialist or supervisor providers ongoing support at the workplace or a transitional setting


Often, by arranging for modifications to job duties, a therapist can facilitate a quick and successful return to work. When employees are offered modified duties, they are twice as likely to return to work and they cut the amount of time out of work in half. By working with impacted employees to explore their options, you can help them to maintain autonomy within the complicated workers’ compensation system and take control of their progress.

Sarah Hathaway, LMSW

Manager, Clinical Consult Center

Sarah Hathaway is a licensed social worker (LMSW) with a Master of Social Work from Grand Valley State University and a Bachelor of Science in Sociology from Michigan State University. With over a decade in social and behavioral health services, Sarah has previously worked within public school programs, the child welfare system, and mental health non-profit organizations, supporting children and adults of diverse backgrounds and abilities. She is trained in trauma-informed care and is a mentor to R3’s disruptive event management network. As the manager of the Clinical Consult Center, Sarah oversees the telephonic crisis response services delivered to impacted workers immediately following a disruptive event. She has provided support to individuals affected by events such as robberies, transportation incidents, mass shootings and natural disasters. Her philosophy for service delivery is based on the ideas that returning to work and routine are vital to one’s recovery, and occupational health is an integral part of mental health treatment.