Management of return-to-work programs for workers with musculoskeletal disorders: a qualitative study in three Canadian provinces

Soc Sci Med. 2003 Dec;57(11):2101-14. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(03)00131-x.


In this qualitative research project, researchers in three Canadian provinces explored the perceptions of many different actors involved in return-to-work (RTW) programs for injured workers, studying their views on successful RTW strategies and barriers to/facilitators of the RTW process, then analyzing the underlying dynamics driving their different experiences. Each research team recruited actors in a variety of different workplaces and key informants in the RTW system, and used a combination of in-depth, semi-structured interviews and focus groups to collect data, which were coded using an open coding system. Analysis took a social constructionist perspective. The roles and mandates of the different groups of actors (injured workers; other workplace actors; actors outside the workplace), while sometimes complementary, could also differ, leading to tension and conflict. Characteristics of injured workers described as influencing RTW success included personal and sociodemographic factors, beliefs and attitudes, and motivation. Human resources managers and health care professionals tended to attribute workers' motivation to their individual characteristics, whereas injured workers, worker representatives and health and safety managers described workplace culture and the degree to which workers' well-being was considered as having a strong influence on workers' motivation. Some supervisors experienced role conflict when responsible for both production quotas and RTW programs, but difficulties were alleviated by innovations such as consideration of RTW program responsibilities in the determination of production quotas and in performance evaluations. RTW program success seemed related to labor-management relations and top management commitment to Health and Safety. Non-workplace issues included confusion stemming from the compensation system itself, communication difficulties with some treating physicians, and role conflict on the part of physicians wishing to advocate for patients whose problems were non-compensable. Several common themes emerged from the experiences related by the wide range of actors including the importance of trust, respect, communication and labor relations in the failure or success of RTW programs for injured workers.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Occupational* / economics
  • Attitude to Health
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Manitoba
  • Motivation
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / economics
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / rehabilitation*
  • Occupational Health
  • Occupational Health Services / economics
  • Occupational Health Services / organization & administration*
  • Ontario
  • Personnel Management
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Qualitative Research
  • Quebec
  • Rehabilitation, Vocational / economics
  • Rehabilitation, Vocational / standards*
  • Workers' Compensation*