Background: It is argued that one of the factors limiting the understanding of return to work (RTW) following work disability is the use of measurement tools that do not capture a complete picture of workers' RTW experiences. To facilitate the investigation of RTW, the current authors proposed a developmental conceptualization of RTW, which argues for an expanded awareness that encompasses four phases: off work, work reintegration, work maintenance and advancement. This paper reports on work undertaken with the aim of operationalizing the conceptualization.
Methods: A review of the RTW and related literature, with databases searched including PubMed, EconLit, and PsycInfo. We began by extracting details of RTW instruments used by previous researchers. We then interpreted these within the context of the phases of RTW. Using the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) to inform our thinking and coding structure, we conceptualized phase-based RTW outcomes and categorized them as 'tasks and actions', 'contextual' or 'process driven'. Iteratively, we reviewed existing instruments for their use as measures of RTW. Where gaps in instrumentation were found, the wider vocational and career assessment literature was searched for instruments that could be adapted for use in RTW research.
Results: Results indicate that, although numerous research instruments have been used to assess RTW, within the scientific literature some important dimensions of RTW lack instrumentation. In particular, we found that outcomes such as goal setting, motivation, expectation, job seeking, work maintenance, and career advancement require operationalization. Amongst the outcomes had been operationalized, we found considerable variation in conceptual development and application.
Conclusions: The lack of consistency and comprehensiveness of RTW measurement is one of the factors compromising the advancement of the field of RTW research. It is suggested that a more complete and psychometrically sound array of research instruments, grounded within a commonly adopted paradigm, would further the understanding of RTW and the factors affecting it.