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Working on it

Return-to-work advisers help ill or injured Police staff reintegrate back into the workforce. We report on their work and share two stories from members who have been through the process.

At any one time in Police there can be up to 500 staff who are ill or injured and either unable to work or on light duties.

Their issues can range from a sprained finger to a brain injury and about up to 80 of them will be on weekly ACC compensation.

Sports injuries and major illnesses, such as cancer and heart and respiratory conditions, account for many cases, as well as elective surgery. Surprisingly few staff are out of action with work-related injuries.

Whatever the cause of their absence, a 2018 health and safety review by Police identified that there was room for improvement in the rehabilitation and care of staff who needed support to return to work.

Helen Berry was appointed as Police’s return-to-work manager in 2018. She says the ethos of return-to-work support is to “put people at the centre of what we do, holistically, rather than ticking boxes”.

Investment in rehabilitation delivers the best outcomes for our staff, she says, which has meant building strong relationships between Police, third-party administrator Gallagher Bassett and ACC.

Since October 2018, three return to work (RTW) advisers have been employed by Police, covering three to five districts each.

When a staff member is ill or injured, it is their manager’s responsibility to oversee their rehab plan, but it is the job of a return-to-work adviser to put the plan in place, providing specialist advice to managers and staff.

The advisers also identify any gaps in the way cases are being managed and any issues with service providers through ACC and Gallagher Bassett.

Until 2018, Police had two rehabilitation coordinators, including Maura Long, based in Canterbury district. In a district-based initiative in 2005, Maura was appointed with the aim of improving the process of helping staff back to work in that district.

She set the template for the on-the-ground work of staff rehab and has become a respected authority on the subject. In 2019 she was awarded a Woolf Fisher Scholarship to travel and study overseas in recognition of her commitment and development of the role.

Everybody’s needs are different, says Maura. Most rehab involves physio, but some people need psychiatric support too.

“If people are isolated from their work, it can lead to depression and other mental health issues. There is often a lot of apprehension because an injury or illness can potentially be career-threatening, so it’s very important that we do what we can to help them by being specific with goals, accessibility and timelines.”

After 15 years in the job, Maura says she is still most happy working at the coalface, “dealing with real people, on both sides… People are very caring, and we appreciate that people are in pain”.

Maura and her RTW colleagues – Cathy Hudson (based in Wellington) and Debbie Wareham (based in Auckland) – have backgrounds in health, wellness, management and coordination.

“Each brings their own valuable skill-set to the roles,” Helen says, “working to provide expert advice and consistency in the return-to-work approach across the country.”

Helen says studies have shown that being out of work is a leading cause of mental injury, “so it’s very important for Police to prioritise this”, including by remaining connected to staff who are off work for extended periods of time.

The common injuries are strains and sprains, most of which can be dealt with relatively quickly, while more complicated cases, such as concussions, mental injuries, backs, spines, shoulders and knees, will take longer.

“Staff are supported to engage with traditional, contemporary and cultural methods of healthcare, should they decide to, and this is something we are seeing more and more of in the return-
to-work space, which is fantastic,”
Helen says.

Medical retirement is also managed by the team, but is a last resort “when all else has been exhausted over a reasonable period of time for that injury”.

“It’s a difficult decision and sometimes a staff member prefers that it is made by someone else as they can’t bring themselves to make that call, particularly after a long career.”

Fortunately, those cases are the exception.

Among the success stories is that of Christchurch officer Detective Sergeant Phil Sparks, who suffered a potentially life-threatening injury in a boating incident in October 2017.

He damaged his neck and dissected his carotid artery. It was stabilised, but the ongoing effects included a constant migraine and severe photophobia, meaning he couldn’t look at a bright light, not even a phone screen.

The rehab was slow, and he felt disheartened. “My ability to return to work seemed impossible in the situation,” he says, “but from the outset, Police Wellness and, in particular, Maura provided excellent support.”

Although Maura’s focus was rehabilitation and reintegration back into work, Phil says she was also instrumental in ensuring the public health system was providing everything it should and in helping with his two-year battle with ACC to have the matter classed as an accident. “The added stress of this cannot be understated, and neither can Maura’s dogged determination to assist.”

There are no short cuts when a member is ill or injured, says Phil. “Quite rightly, the organisation will not sign members back to duty without appropriate rehab, so full buy-in with the return-to-work staff is vital to return to full health and fulltime work.”

In February last year, Detective Annie Sullivan, from Canterbury District hurt her knee doing the long jump for the PCT.

Physiotherapy didn’t fix the problem and an MRI showed she needed surgery, which was done in late September. Since then, Annie has been doing a strengthening programme working towards completing the PCT.

“Right from the time my injury occurred, Maura provided practical and moral support, including referring me to a physiotherapist who continues to help me. Maura also assisted me in dealing with [administrators] Gallagher Bassett and has attended my meetings with them.

“I feel she really has my best interests at heart. She hasn’t rushed me through rehabilitation and continues to support me in my goal to complete my PCT.”