Bearing the Brunt: Co-workers’ Experiences of Work Reintegration Processes
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PURPOSE: Work disability research has found co-worker support to be a significant but under-recognised aspect of work reintegration (WR) processes. Although co-workers work alongside returning workers, their practical contribution to WR success or failure is often invisible to others. This study aimed to gain further insight into the role and contribution of co-workers in WR interventions. METHOD: An exploratory qualitative pilot study was conducted in Toronto, Canada in 2011. Three focus groups were conducted with 13 co-workers, recruited for their direct experience of 'working alongside' a returning worker. An iterative data gathering and analysis process occurred. Themes were generated from categories in open-ended interview questions and new issues arising from the data. FINDINGS: The findings detail co-workers' practical experiences of WR processes and their reflections on social and work conditions that impacted their participation. Co-workers' capacity to support returning workers was related to the quality of the WR arrangements, the relationship with the returning worker, work culture, and the duration of the required support. Workplace privacy and confidentiality requirements were identified as a key challenge for co-worker participation. The effects on co-workers of WR processes ranged from the opportunity to learn new skills to disillusionment and withdrawal from the workplace. In worst case scenarios, 'ripple effects' including emotional distress, physical injury and termination of co-workers' employment had occurred. CONCLUSION: Co-workers are not a neutral party in WR procedures. Formalizing the co-worker role to include communication, consideration and recognition might improve co-workers' WR experiences.
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