Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Role of Co-Workers in the Return-to-Work Process

  • Debra A. Dunstan (a1), Katrien Mortelmans (a2) (a3), Åsa Tjulin (a4) and Ellen MacEachen (a5)


There is a large body of research examining work disability management and the return to work (RTW) of sick or injured workers. However, although this research makes clear the roles of the returning worker and supervisor, that of the co-workers is less well understood. To increase understanding of this topic, we have identified, reviewed, and discussed three studies that emerged from our connection with a Canadian research-training program. The first study, conducted in Sweden by Tjulin, MacEachen, and Ekberg (2009), showed that co-workers can play a positive role in RTW, but this is often invisible to supervisors. The second study, undertaken by Dunstan and MacEachen (2013) in Canada, found that RTW could both positively and negatively impact co-workers. For instance, co-workers may benefit from learning new skills, but may also be burdened by the need to assume extra work to accommodate a returning worker. The third study, performed in Belgium by Mortelmans and Verjans (2012) and Mortelmans, Verjans, and Mairiaux (2012) reported the need to include the expectations and objections of co-workers in RTW plans and implemented a three-step RTW tool that involves co-workers. Taken together, these studies highlight the social context of work, the positive role played by co-workers in the RTW process, the impacts of workplace social relations on RTW outcomes, and the benefits to all of involving co-workers in RTW plans.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      The Role of Co-Workers in the Return-to-Work Process
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      The Role of Co-Workers in the Return-to-Work Process
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      The Role of Co-Workers in the Return-to-Work Process
      Available formats


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Debra A. Dunstan, School of Behavioural Cognitive and Social Sciences, Clinical Psychology Program, University of New England, Armidale NSW 2351, Australia. E-mail:


Hide All
Adams, J.S. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In Berkowitz, L. (Ed). Advances in experimental psychology. (pp. 267299) New York, NY: Academic Press.
Bernhard, D., MacEachen, E., & Lippel, K. (2010). Employment conditions and health inequities. Geneva, Switzerland: Work Health Organization Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Employment Conditions Knowledge Network.
Brohan, E., Henderson, C., Wheat, K., Malcolm, E., Clement, S., Barley, E.A, . . . & Thornicroft, G. (2012). Systematic review of beliefs, behaviours and influencing factors associated with disclosure of a mental health problem in the workplace. BMC Psychiatry, 12 (1), 11.
Baril, R., Clarke, J., Friesen, M., Stock, S., & Cole, D. (2003). Management of return-to-work programs for workers with musculoskeletal disorders: a qualitative study in three Canadian provinces. Social Science & Medicine, 57 (11). doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(03)00131-x
Chiaburu, D.S., & Harrison, D.A. (2008). Do peers make the place? Conceptual synthesis and meta-analysis of coworker effects on perceptions, attitudes, OCBs, and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (5), 10821103.
Colella, A. (1994). Organizational socialization of employees with disabilities: Critical issues and implications for workplace interventions. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 4 (2), 87106.
Colella, A. (2001). Coworker distributive fairness judgments of the workplace accommodation of employees with disabilities. The Academy of Management Review, 26 (1), 100116.
Colella, A., Paetzold, R., & Belliveau, M.A. (2004). Factors affecting coworkers’ procedural justice inferences of the workplace accommodations of employees with disabilities. Personnel Psychology, 57 (1), 123. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2004.tb02482.x.
Dekkers-Sánchez, P.M., Wind, H., Sluiter, J.K., Frings-Dresen, M.H.W (2011). What promotes sustained return to work of employees on long-term sick leave? Perspectives of vocational rehabilitation professionals. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 37 (6), 481493. doi: 10.5271/sjweh.3173. Epub 2011 Jun 10.
Dunstan, D., & MacEachen, E. (2013). Bearing the brunt: Co-workers’ experiences of work reintegration processes. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 23 (1), 4454. doi: 10.1007/s10926-012-9380-2
Dunstan, D.A., & MacEachen, E. (2014). A theoretical model of co-worker responses to work reintegration processes. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 24 (2), 189198. doi: 10.1007/s10926-013-9461-x
Eakin, J.M. (2010). Towards a ‘standpoint’ perspective: Health and safety in small workplaces from the perspective of the workers. Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 8 (2), 113127.
Eggert, S. (2010). Psychosocial factors affecting employees abilities to return to work. AAOHN Journal, 58 (2), 5155. doi: 10.3928/08910162-20100118-01
Franche, R.-L., Cullen, K., Clarke, J., Irvin, E., Sinclair, S., Frank, J., & Institute for Work & Health. (2005). Workplace-based RTW intervetnion literature review research team. Workplace-based return-to-work interventions: A systematic review of the quantitative literature. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 15 (4), 607631. doi: 10.1007/s10926-005-8038-8
Franche, R-L., Severin, C. N., Lee, H., Hogg-Johnson, S., Hepburn, C. G., Vidmar, M., & MacEachen, E. (2009). Perceived justice of compensation process for return-to-work: Development and validation of a scale. Psychological Injury and Law, 2 (3–4), 225237.
Frank, J., Sinclair, S., Hogg-Johnson, S., Shannon, H., Bombardier, C., Beaton, D., & Cole, D. M. D. (1998). Preventing disability from work-related low-back pain: new evidence gives new hope — if we can just get all the players onside. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 158 (12), 16251631.
Haugli, L., Maeland, S., Magnussen, L. (2011). What facilitates return to work? Patients experiences 3 years after occupational rehabilitation. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 21, 573581. doi: 10.1007/s10926-011-9304-6
Joyce, T., McMillan, M., & Hazelton, M. (2009). The workplace and nurses with a mental illness. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 18 (6), 391397.
Kulkarni, M. (2012). contextual factors and help seeking behaviors of people with disabilities. Human Resource Development Review, 11 (1), 77.
Larsson, A., & Gard, G. (2003). How can the rehabilitation planning process at the workplace be improved? A qualitative study from employers’ perspective. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 13, 169181. doi: 10.1023/a:1024953218252
Lippel, K., & Lötters, F. (2003). Pubic insurance systems: A comparison of casue-based and disability-based income support systems. In: Loisel, P. & Anema, J. (Eds.), Handbook of work disability: Prevention and management (pp. 183202). New York, NY: Springer.
Loisel, P., Cote, P., Durand, M.-J., Franche, R.-L., & Sullivan, M.L. (2005). training the next generation of researchers in work disability prevention: The Canadian Work Disability Prevention CIHR Strategic Training Program. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 15 (3), 273284. doi: 10.1007/s10926-005-5936-8
Loisel, P., Hong, Q., Imbeau, D., Lippel, K., Guzman, J., MacEachen, E., . . . Anema, J. (2009). The Work Disability Prevention CIHR Strategic Training Program: Program performance after 5 years of implementation. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 19 (1), 17. doi: 10.1007/s10926-008-9160-1
MacEachen, E., Clarke, J., Franche, R.-L., Irvin, E., & Institute for Work & Health Workplace-based RTW Intervention Literature Review Research Team. (2006). Systematic review of the qualitative literature on return to work after injury. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 32 (4), 257269.
Mortelmans, A.K., & Verjans, M. (2012). Return-to-Work3. Paper presented at the 6th International Forum Disability Management, London, England, September 10–12, 2012.
Mortelmans, A.K., Verjans, M., & Mairiaux, P. (2012, October). Adapting the Sherbrook model to the Belgian situation. Poster session presented at the 2nd Scientific Conference on Work Disability Prevention and Integration, Groningen, the Netherlands, October 22–24, 2012.
New York State Workers Compensation Board. (2011). Return to work handbook. Retrieved from
Pransky, G.S., Loisel, P., & Anema, J.R. (2011). Work disability prevention research: current and future prospects. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 21 (3), 287292. doi: 10.1007/s10926-011-9327-z
Roberts, K., & Young, W. (1997). procedural fairness, return to work, and the decision to dispute in workers’ compensation. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 10 (3), 193212.
Sager, L., & James, C. (2005). Injured workers’ perspectives of their rehabilitation process under the New South Wales workers compensation system. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 52 (2), 127135. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1630.2005.00477.x
Shaw, W., Hong, Q.N., Pransky, G., & Loisel, P. (2008). A literature review describing the role of return-to-work coordinators in trial programs and interventions designed to prevent workplace disability. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 18 (1), 215. [Epub Dec 15.]
Soeker, M.S., Van Rensburg, V., & Travill, A. (2012). Individuals with traumatic brain injuries perceptions and experiences of returning to work in South Africa. Work, 42 (4), 589600. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2012-1414
Stergiou-Kita, M., Grigorovich, A., Tseung, V, Milosevic, E., Hebert, D., Phan, S., & Jones, J. (2014). Qualitative meta-synthesis of survivors' work experiences and the development of strategies to facilitate return to work. See comment in PubMed Commons below Journal of Cancer Survivorship, 8 (4), 657670. doi: 10.1007/s11764-014-0377-z. Epub 2014 Jul 4.
Sturesson, M., Edlund, C., Falkdal, A.H., & Bernspång, B. (2014). Healthcare encounters and return to work: a qualitative study on sick-listed patients' experiences. Primary Health Care Research and Development, (4), 464475. doi: 10.1017/S1463423614000255.
Sullivan, M. J. L., Feuerstein, M., Gatchel, R., Linton, S. J., & Pransky, G. (2005). Integrating psychosocial and behavioral interventions to achieve optimal rehabilitation outcomes. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 15 (4), 475489.
Tjulin, A., MacEachen, E., & Ekberg, K. (2009). Exploring workplace actors experiences of the social organization of return-to-work. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 20 (3), 311321. doi: 10.1007/s10926-009-9209-9.
WorkCover Tasmania. (2010). Injury management: Making it work. Retrieved from


The Role of Co-Workers in the Return-to-Work Process

  • Debra A. Dunstan (a1), Katrien Mortelmans (a2) (a3), Åsa Tjulin (a4) and Ellen MacEachen (a5)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed