Seminar Presentation 8-1

8-1 (Presentation within Topical Seminar 8):
Supervisor competencies for supporting return to work after a mental health or musculoskeletal disorder

Presented by: Venerina Johnston


Johnston V1, Way K1,2, Long M1, Wyatt M3, Gibson L1, Shaw WS4

  1. School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia
  2. School of Psychology, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia
  3. Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University and ResWorks and, Victoria, Australia
  4. Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, Hopkinton, MA, USA



A recent review of workers’ compensation systems in Australia showed that at the workplace, 30% of injured workers nominated their immediate supervisor as providing the most help with their return to work (RTW) compared with occupational health and safety officers (8%), human resource staff (3%) or RTW coordinators (3%). The importance of line supervisors for RTW has been confirmed by empirical studies with supervisors and injured workers. Whether supervisors possess the competencies needed to carry out this work effectively is unknown. The aim of this research was to determine the competencies supervisors need in order to facilitate a worker’s return to work following absence due to a mental health condition or a musculoskeletal disorder.


Supervisors from five industries with high rates of compensable claims participated in focus groups to elicit personal attributes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors required to support returning workers. From a multi-stage analysis of responses, return to work competencies were developed, allocated to clusters of related items, and incorporated into an online survey administered to rehabilitation professionals.


Twenty-nine supervisors participated in five focus groups. The final model included 84 generic competencies, eight specific to mental health conditions, and two specific to musculoskeletal disorders. Survey respondents (n = 344) represented a variety of rehabilitation professionals and jurisdictions in Australia. Nearly all agreed that supervisors should receive training to support staff returning to work. Ninety of the 94 competencies were rated as very important or essential by at least 50% of respondents. The highest ratings were achieved by competencies relating to personal attributes, knowledge of RTW processes, and empathetic support of the worker.


Supervisors and rehabilitation professionals believe effective support of RTW requires a range of personal attributes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors. Our competency model should undergo workplace testing to evaluate its effectiveness.