Getting injured or severely ill on the job may be a life-changing event. Whether it’s a spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, or other debilitating event that results in a permanent loss of function, the injured worker will need to be rehabilitated for work.
There are many benefits of occupational therapy for the injured worker who wants to return to their employment. Occupational therapists focus on remediation of impairments and limitations. Like physical therapists, they work to help patients increase strength and flexibility to minimize impairments, but they also help patients learn practical techniques to work around the difficulties imposed on their lives by those impairments. The goal is to maximize the injured workers’ ability to do what they want and need to do while increasing day-to-day function and independence.
For work rehabilitation, the patient may not be able to perform all the tasks he or she was previously responsible for at work or may need to regain the ability to do so over time in a structured environment. Occupational therapists seek to gain an accurate understanding of the work environment and the worker’s capacity to carry out the job. Using this information, an OT will offer interventions that will help the patient maximize his or her potential to work.
It’s important to note that occupational therapy exercises help patients participate fully in all the activities of life and help them feel happy, confident, and fulfilled—despite limitations from their illness or injury.
Losing the ability to work as you used to because of an illness or injury is a profoundly disruptive life event that may lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Most individuals derive a sense of satisfaction and self-esteem from being able to work in a meaningful way. When working is not possible for any reason – such as an illness or injury – people may not be able to see themselves as competent. Therefore, one of the key benefits of occupational therapy is not just medical recovery but social and psychological well-being as well.
Let’s examine how patients with a worker’s comp injury can expect occupational therapy to assist with work rehabilitation.
Work conditioning is just like it sounds; it’s a conditioning program geared toward helping workers regain strength, mobility, endurance, power, and other aspects of functioning. Occupational therapy exercises in a work conditioning program address musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems. Each activity will be designed based on specific return-to-work goals. Work conditioning helps patients regain their physical capabilities and functional ability, and in turn, the confidence to return to work.
For most work conditioning programs, the patient will simulate tasks he or she would typically do at work in a supervised setting for 2 to 4 hours a day, 3 to 5 days a week. Occupational therapists act as instructors helping patients learn to perform specific work duties while preventing another injury.
Work hardening is very similar to work conditioning, but it’s a more intensive, highly structured program that requires a multidisciplinary team. This team may include an occupational therapist, physical therapist, counselor, physician, and job coach. Patients typically participate in this program five days a week for a least a few hours. Work hardening programs can be centered around work simulations or completed at the actual job site. The multidisciplinary team will assess whether more modifications need to be made to the job tasks or the environment to help the patient succeed.
Function Capacity Evaluation (FCE)
For an FCE, occupational therapists evaluate the patient’s ability to participate in a job role. Occupational therapists are highly qualified to conduct this type of evaluation because they are experienced in understanding work-related tasks, knowledgeable about the context of the work environment, and familiar with the effect of illnesses or injuries on the patient’s body. OTs conduct multiple assessments of patients to determine their ability to carry out different types of work. An FCE helps with the planning for a rehabilitation program and provides evidence for worker’s compensation settlements and disability status.
The occupational therapist may determine that patients can return to work but will need some physical adjustments to their workplace to help them. When this occurs, occupational therapists can work with the employer to devise strategies for the employee, such as changing the design of the workplace, introducing tools to make it easier for the employee to perform responsibilities, or finding ways to reduce noise.
Transitional Return to Work
Transitional Return to Work programs use occupational therapy to help patients become accustomed to working in their environment again. The occupational therapist will first evaluate the patient’s capabilities, the job-related tasks, and the work environment to make recommendations on how the patient should begin and gradually build-up to his or her maximum capacity. The team will monitor the patient’s ability to complete job-related activities through the program and help direct the patient to perform progressively more challenging tasks. For the employer, the benefits of this occupational therapy program are significant: a faster and safer return to work for the employee and avoiding the costs of training a new employee.
Transitional Return to Work programs help patients readjust to the normal routines in their work environment but still provide supervision for safety purposes. Instead of simply returning to full work responsibilities immediately, patients have the time and space to heal gradually while adding work responsibilities. With this approach, they can build their confidence and envision themselves as part of the working world as they increase their responsibilities and make incremental progress.
Rehab Select provides occupational therapy in one-on-one settings and as part of a multidisciplinary team. We conduct individual evaluations to design programs that are suited for patients with worker’s comp injuries to help them reach their individual and work goals. Learn more about the benefits of occupational therapy at Rehab Select by scheduling a tour.