When a worker is injured in the workplace, some workplaces can fall into the trap of believing a simple return to work program is the only requirement to assist workers back to work.

While an appropriate suitable duties program is a vital cog in the return to work process, there are other ways to maximise return to work outcomes. Understanding the interaction between the actual injury and interpersonal factors of the injured worker can assist in a successful return to work. The question is how do these factors influence each other? That’s when we can look at the biopsychosocial model. The biopsychosocial model considers the individual, their health condition, and their social context. The national insurance system ComCare breaks the approach down further:


refers to the physical and/or mental health condition.


recognises that personal/psychological factors also influence the ability to function with illness or injury.


recognises the importance of the social context, pressures and constraints on the person’s ability to function with illness or injury. (ComCare, Australian Government).

Based on the simple break down above, when considering whether the return to work program will be successful, one should consider some of the following questions (these are just a sample – each injury and workplace is unique).


What is the injury diagnosis, prognosis and current status? Is the injury acute or chronic? Is the injury short term or long term?


What are the workers fears and beliefs about their injury? What does the worker believe the return to work program will have on their injury and their general health? Is worker motivated to return to work?


Is there a presence or absence of support from co-workers and colleagues? Are there meaningful suitable or alternative duties available? Are there external pressures to return to work? What are the return to work and injury management policies and procedures in the workplace?

However, it’s not just the restriction due to injury we need to consider. One of the major limiting factors to injuries can be pain. There are many return to work cases where pain is not always in line with the severity of the injury.

The biopsychosocial model recognises that pain levels are not always consistent with the injury severity. Perception of pain can differ depending on multiple psychosocial factors. With this in mind, try to consider the physical, psychological (including emotional) and social needs of injured workers when commencing a return to work program.

Be sure to identify potential issues to the return to work process – both actual and perceived - prior to them becoming a problem. Early identification allows for a contingency plan to be put in place to prevent any issues from slowing the return to work process.

Why is early intervention important? Research shows if a person is off work for:

Person is off work

Need help with improving your return to work outcomes? Sonic HealthPlus has allied health professionals with return to work experience to assist your workplace.

  • Australian and New Zealand consensus statement on the health benefits of work. Position statement: realizing the health benefits of work.
  • Comcare.gov.au
  • Work Safe Australia
Dr Keith Adam
M.B., B.S., Fellow ACOM, Fellow AFOEM, RACPChief Medical Officer

Dr Keith Adam is a Senior Specialist Occupational Physician with Sonic HealthPlus and an Associate Professor of Occupational Medicine with the University of Queensland. Treating and rehabilitating injured workers since 1984, Dr Adam has extensive experience in determining what duties injured workers may be able to perform, and managing return to work programmes.

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Phil Pavlos

Phil has a diverse background in occupational health and rehabilitation having worked in the healthcare sector for a number of years. He has completed tertiary studies in Exercise Physiology and Occupational Health & Safety which have provided a sound skill base to work within the corporate environment and adapt to client needs and expectations.

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