Why Australia’s post-injury return-to-work rates have been stagnant for 15 years

A recently released report by SafeWork Australia shows that there has been no improvement in our national return-to-work rates for the past 15 years.

Despite substantial growth in the international body of evidence about what works and what doesn’t in returning injured people to work, as a nation Australia is no better at this in 2013 than we were 15 years ago. Our practises are broadly the same. Our policies have not really changed. We have failed to innovate.

The report summarises the headline findings of a survey of injured and ill workers conducted every year by SafeWork Australia, the federal government agency with oversight of our workers compensation systems. The survey includes workers who were injured in the previous seven to nine months, and asks two key questions. First: have you worked at any time since your injury or illness? Second: are you currently working in a paid job?

Beginning in the 1997-1998 financial year, the survey has found that yearly, between 84% and 87% of people surveyed report that they have worked at some time since their injury. In 14 of those 15 years, between 72% and 77% of people reported that they were working at the time they were surveyed.

In other words, about a quarter of injured Australian workers are not working 7 to 9 months after their injury.

Over the same period there have been major improvements in workplace health and safety, with a 26% reduction in the incidence of serious workplace injury in the decade to 2010. Much of this has been driven by innovation in work health and safety policy and practice.

So while we have become much better at preventing workplace injury, we are no better at helping people back to work if they are injured.

This is a major economic and public health challenge that is worth careful consideration by government and industry. The figures may surprise many.

In Victoria alone, workplace injury and illnesses covered by the state workers compensation agency resulted in 189,000 years of lost working time between 1995 and 2008.

In other words, for every year in Victoria between 1995 and 2008 we lost approximately 13,500 years of productive working time due to workplace injury and disease. Even a small improvement in return-to-work will have major implications for the economy, industry productivity and the financial sustainability of the workers compensation system.

The health benefits of safe work are now well documented. We know that being out of work is bad for a worker’s health. We also now know that returning to work aids injury recovery, improves social and community inclusion, and has positive economic impact.

Of course it is possible that we are so good at return-to-work that there is little room for improvement. But the evidence would suggest otherwise.

There are differences between states. Last year, Western Australia, New South Wales and Comcare (the federal government workers’ compensation scheme) were the best performers with 80% of injured workers back at work when they were surveyed. In South Australia the figure was 70%. In Queensland 75%.

This variation suggests that there is at least some room for improvement, particularly in the states with the poorest results in the SafeWork survey. This would lift the national average.

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