Vocational rehabilitation: what is it and why is it important?

Doctor holding a patient's chart

Vocational rehabilitation provides support, guidance and treatments to help an absent employee return to work. We explore why it's a vital service.

What support is available for an employee when they are off on long-term sick? Vocational rehabilitation services from insurance providers are an extremely valuable component of income protection insurance. While awareness of these services has increased in recent years, employer and employee knowledge about what exactly this involves is quite limited.

Early notification to an insurer’s vocational rehabilitation service allows absent employees to receive funded, tailored healthcare and general support to get them back to the workplace. But how do employees access these services and stay connected to their workplace?

What is vocational rehabilitation?

It’s a structured programme of support, guidance, advice and treatment that has the sole aim of returning the employee back to work. It’s collaborative; with the insurance company, absent employee, employer and relevant service providers, whether healthcare or training providers, all working together to help the employee make a successful return to the workplace. It is coordinated by a Rehabilitation Specialist, or case manager, whose role is to plan, co-ordinate, oversee, implement and assess the services needed to meet an absentee’s individual health, social care, educational and employment needs.

Why is it important?

The Rehabilitation Specialist acts as the central point of contact for all parties in an absentee’s return to work process, ensuring the employee is not forgotten about by the employer but is also receiving the most appropriate care. They are also responsible for ensuring the return to work process is managed effectively in order to achieve a successful result for the absent employee, minimising the risks of a failed return resulting in further absence.

Each employee is different

No two employees will require the same treatments, training and support, meaning no two employees will have the same outcome. Also, the road might be bumpy. Rehabilitation Specialists need to be prepared for hiccups along the way, where circumstances might change and treatments may take longer. There are four key steps that are usually present for every case:

Initial assessment

This is the time where the specialist is introduced to the employee, exploring why the person is absent, who their employer is, what their current job role is in order to determine a return to work goal. This assessment goes beyond the reason of absence, and also looks at the impact of injury or illness on their daily life, otherwise known as a bio-psycho-social (BSP) assessment.


Once the specialist has the information they need about the individual, they will be able to set objectives for the person to reach and develop a plan to reach them.  There is no guarantee that this will be a short process, as depending on the cause of absence, the length of time to return a person to work successfully will vary. Therefore, these objectives should be achievable and set in a timely manner in order to encourage the absentee and not overwhelm them.

Planning to reach these goals, such as managing symptoms and coping with daily activities, will often involve calling upon third parties for support services such as treatment, coaching or further assessment.

Putting the plan into action

Once a plan is in place, the specialist will open communication between all collaborating parties to encourage a smooth return to work. The process will need to be reviewed regularly depending on the speed of the employee’s recovery, this may mean moving goals forward or setting them back. However, these changes won’t be made without the Rehabilitation Specialist communicating with everyone involved in the process, keeping each party on the same wavelength.

Getting back to work

Usually, the plan set will be with the aim of returning a person to their original hours and duties at a speed that suits the absentee’s recovery. However, that may not always be achievable.

Some cases may require deeper involvement from the Rehabilitation Specialist, employee and employer to determine if the person’s role should change, or even if they’re now suited to more fitting employment elsewhere. If so, this may require providing the individual with retraining and career coaching, in order for a successful return to work to be achieved.

In a nutshell

Each employee’s needs are unique. A vocational rehabilitation programme is therefore flexible and is tailored to help each individual employee make a successful return to work, at a speed that is right for them.

A crucial part of the vocational rehabilitation process, is the role of the Rehabilitation Specialist who is the central point of communication between all those tasked with supporting the employee back to work. With many parties often involved, communication and coordination is key. Therefore their role is crucial to the success of the whole process; communicating, coordinating and supporting the employee back into the workplace.