Supporting someone to return to work after a serious injury or illness can be a difficult process when there have been many health professionals involved in their care, and many opinions on whether and when they may be fit to return to work.

Returning to work is not only of economic significance to the individual and the wider social economy, but is also an important part of recovery from injury or illness, being known to have a therapeutic benefit in the short to medium term and health protecting effects in the long term. Effective return to work planning for those with more complex conditions or social situations often requires a collaborative team approach of the individual, the health care advisors, employment support advisors and their employer (where applicable) but this is not always easy to co-ordinate.

Heather Watson is a Physiotherapist who has spent over 20 years specialising in supporting people to return to work after physical injury and illness, and has set up award winning return to work services that have catered for conditions from minor musculoskeletal disorders through to serious trauma and illness.

Over the next two weeks, Heather will share some of her tips for planning to return to work:

It is important to remember that there are many people around the world who have long term health conditions who go to work every day, some people need very few changes to enable them to carry out their work, others need considerable help to find new work that matches their new physical capabilities as well as their knowledge and skills, and then some also need practical support with workplace adaptations or additional support to travel to a workplace.


It can be a difficult question – when is it the right time to return to work? There is no single answer, every individual is different, but here are some suggestions:

  • As early as is possible in the recovery process – generally work has a positive impact on recovery, giving structure to the day, social interaction and a satisfaction in achievement, as well as helping improve physical and mental health
  •  It is often not necessary or advisable to wait until all the pain or other symptoms have gone, or all medical interventions or courses of treatment are completed. These things may never go away completely, and its is important to look for ways to modify work and lifestyle to work round these obstacles. Waiting for a scan result for example may not change the way a return to work is planned, and it often does not find a solution to the symptoms, (In other words nothing changes just because there is a scan result, except in a very small number of cases) and it could cause a significant delay when time is an important factor in successful return to work outcome.
  • There is no such thing as being 100% fit – so no need to wait for it to happen!
  • When someone is managing most of their personal care tasks and starting to feel more confident about doing more, then introducing the idea of returning to work can be a good idea. Many people need to time to consider it, often before they are completely ready – it can help to start contemplating work well before an actual date is discussed.

Getting the team in place:

Return to work does need some advance thought and planning to make it as successful as possible for the individual and the employer. The individual is going to need help from all sides, and we know that well meaning friends and family can stall people’s plans to return to work believing they are protecting them.

  • Encourage the individual to have discussions with family and friends about what they’d like to do and what they may need extra help with to get started, such as transport. If the individual tells you their family does not want them to return to work then this is a known obstacle to return to work and it may mean both the person and their family needs some extra education about why work can be a good thing and that it is safe to return to work – this is where it is helpful to work with a health professional who can provide a reassurance about the condition.
  • Encourage the individual to discuss with their therapists what they think they may be able to do, how to manage any increase in symptoms that could be reasonably expected with an increase in activity, and what practical support they may need. This planning of how to cope when back at work can really help give the person confidence that they will be able to manage.
  •  Where the person has an existing job to go back to then it is important that the individual makes contact early with their employer, manager, union representatives, occupational health and co-workers and let them know they’d like to come back to work. This puts them more in control of the situation and enables everyone to start talking about the options and preparing a plan.
  • Making the person (and their employer) aware that they may be able to access extra support from schemes like access to work, Fit for Work, or Fit for Work Scotland could make the difference for a small employer being willing to support a person back to work.


Part two of Heather’s tips for planning to return to work will be published on Wednesday, 8 March.