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Would you go into the Lion's Den?

Consider the scenario – you are visiting the zoo, and you see a lion – what do you feel? Probably mostly curiosity, excitement or intrigue I would think – but if someone said to you that you have to go into the den with lion – I suggest these feelings would rapidly shift to terror, panic and a strong desire to run out of the zoo as quickly as you can. Your safe place quickly becomes anywhere that isn’t that zoo, as your safety is directly under threat there.

From the stories relayed to me by many injured workers, their workplaces are viewed as the zoo, and often even worse, the lions den – only the threat isn’t to their physical well-being – the threat is their emotional safety. Returning to work can be like entering the Lion's den, with the most significant threat often being the emotional risk. This experience can bring on shame, embarrassment, fear and guilt, leaving them shaken and wanting to run away.

Most of us have known the feeling of being safe when we were children, we often had a "feel-good" place to retreat to, to create a place of safety for us. Sometimes the clear memories of this place fade but the feeling remains, it’s a place we are happy to return to. When the opposite happens, and we experience a place of pain, threat or humiliation, our desire to remain or return there plummets.

Disappointments, being bullied, injury and unfair treatment at work all have a negative effect on our sense of emotional safety, and when a person has these experiences – generally they don’t want to return there for another dose of the same!

We know that healing can lead to transformation and both psychological and physical recovery, and that Emotional safety is a precondition for productive outcomes and healing. In fact, it is the initial building block for recovery. It is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated, and one will not get hurt or damaged. The emotional pain of these experiences heals much more slowly than the physical injury, and it is human nature to avoid such pain at all cost.

A lack of emotional safety creates an environment of fear which then constrains our cognitive system as we go into survival mode. Once someone is in survival mode, irrational thinking takes over as the emotional brain gears up to do its job of keeping us safe, and the emotional brain directs us to run away from the threat.

In order to set up an environment of emotional safety for someone returning to work after injury, here are a few questions we can ask ourselves:

Have we:

  1. Established a workplace culture of acceptance of modification to job roles and/or tasks to accommodate RTW amongst all staff?

  2. Ensured there are clear instructions for any new work to be completed, and delivered them to take into account the anxious state of mind the injured person returning to work has?

  3. Made sure colleagues are clear not to ask for anything to be done that is outside the agreed scope of work, and there isn’t resentment toward the injured person returning to work about that?

  4. Provided training in EI and communication to staff so they know how to manage any negative emotions they may experience in relation to the RTW of someone injured at work, so they don’t negatively impact their emotional safety?

  5. Set up clear lines of communication with injured person returning to work and identified timeframes to respond to any issues that might arise?

  6. Ensured we have designated check-in points with the injured person returning to work, to avoid having to ask "is anything wrong"?, and so on

If we want any return to work to be successful – its not just about ensuring the OT, Physio or the doctor have assessed the duties and approved that they wont cause physical damage to the injured person returning to work - we have to ask ourselves "have we created a safe emotional environment for the injured person to return to, or is it actually the lions den"?


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