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Intervene early and know the warning signs

For: Claimants Employers and managers Advocates Information seekers

The earlier you notice an employee is experiencing potential signs of ill health or injury, the sooner you can take steps to help them.

Acting early is critical to the recovery process.

Early intervention explained

Early intervention:

  • does not impact on an employee's ability to lodge a workers' compensation claim and should happen whether or not an employee has made a claim for workers’ compensation
  • is about acting early to minimise the impact and duration of emerging symptoms or actual injury or illness
  • participation is voluntary and provides early appropriate treatment and support to employees
  • allows employees to nominate their preferred treating practitioner.

The evidence behind early intervention

We know that early contact and support leads to better health and recovery outcomes.

Evidence shows that an employee is more likely to stay at or return to work when potential risks are identified, their individual needs are assessed, and treatment and/or rehabilitation services begin as soon as possible.

Effective early intervention programs have been shown to deliver a five-fold return on investment. This is mostly due to increased employee productivity.

Early intervention is particularly important for employees with poor mental health. Combined with access to quality mental health care, early intervention is also associated with a 492 per cent return on investment for employers.

Comcare partnered with several Australian Public Sector agencies to test a structured and independent early intervention service. See the findings of our early intervention service pilot project.

Benefits of early intervention

Early intervention programs have been found to have a positive effect for employees, including:

  • recovery outcomes
  • capacity to remain at work
  • the length of time away from work
  • the likelihood of further absence due to sickness
  • how they view the workplace.

There are also benefits for the employer and the workplace, including:

  • fostering a productive and supportive work environment
  • demonstrating that management is committed to employees
  • increasing the likelihood of return to work
  • reducing the cost of incapacity and, in the long term, premiums
  • reducing indirect costs such as lost productivity, recruitment and training costs for replacement staff.

How to put early intervention into practice

Support begins immediately

Ideally support begins on the day the injury, illness or emerging symptoms are reported, whether this occurs formally or through general discussion.

Employers should offer early intervention programs and services to support employees as soon as an injury, illness or emerging symptoms occur.

Support can include access to:

  • a rehabilitation case manager
  • treatment
  • allied health services
  • workplace rehabilitation services.

Rehabilitation should start as soon as possible and regardless of the employee’s intention to lodge a claim under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act).

Once you have been made aware of an employee’s injury or illness, you may provide a rehabilitation assessment and program under either:

  • the SRC Act
  • your organisation’s rehabilitation or early intervention policy and procedures.

For more information about rehabilitation services under the SRC Act, see Rehabilitation information for employers.

Managers know how to respond

Supervisors and managers play a critical role in implementing early intervention.

Employers should ensure that their managers know how to identify early warning signs and are authorised to respond.

Identify early warning signs

Identifying early warning signs will help you support employees who may be at risk of injury or illness.

There are behaviours and signs you can look out for which indicate an employee or colleague may have, or be at risk of developing, a physical or mental injury or illness.


  • Unusual or erratic behaviour
  • Withdrawal from colleagues or not participating in work activities
  • Consuming more caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes or sedatives
  • Unable to concentrate or make decisions
  • Lapses in memory
  • Unplanned absences from work
  • Conflict with team members or a manager
  • Loss of confidence
  • Not completing work tasks.

Physical signs

  • Symptoms of injury or illness, such as pain, difficulty doing physical tasks, reduced range of movement
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Dishevelled or change in appearance
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Rashes.

Early intervention checklist for employers

You can use this checklist to ensure your organisation has effective systems and processes in place to support early intervention.

Leadership commitment

  1. Executive has endorsed an early intervention policy that clearly defines objectives and the roles and expectations of stakeholders.
  2. Other relevant policies that help employees to remain at or return to work following an absence have been reviewed to ensure they are consistent with the early intervention policy.
  3. Early intervention and injury management are included as standing items on executive meeting agendas.

Systems review and improvement

  1. Systems for reporting and investigating incidents have been developed and implemented to underpin early intervention. This can include a human resources system that monitors unplanned absences and alerts managers of increases in unplanned absence.
  2. Contracts with external providers, such as Employee Assistance Program, mediation, training and approved workplace rehabilitation providers, are developed and reviewed to ensure they are consistent with the early intervention policy.
  3. Resources, training and support for middle managers and rehabilitation case managers is available and regularly reviewed.
  4. Management systems for early intervention and return to work are available and reviewed against the organisation’s objectives and available performance data.


  1. Systems are in place to ensure managers are accountable for preventing and managing illness and injury, such as through a performance management framework.
  2. Middle managers and rehabilitation case managers have regular performance reviews against injury management performance indicators and return to work outcomes.
  3. The organisation has clearly defined targets and positive performance indicators (both lead and lag) for return to work that are regularly reported to executive meetings.
  4. The organisation’s annual report includes performance against injury management targets or key indicators of injury management performance.

Information and training

  1. Information has been provided to employees about what support is available, and reporting and contact procedures, should an injury or illness occur. This includes an Employee Assistance Program.
  2. Training and information provides managers with the capability and confidence to respond to early warning signs, support employees at risk of injury or illness, and manage an employee with illness or injury.
  3. Information has been provided to employees to increase their awareness and understanding of mental health issues to help recovery in the workplace.
  4. Rehabilitation and treatment providers have been given information about the organisation's early intervention approach and the need for assessments to identify and address risks of long-term absence from work.


  1. Good performance in injury management is recognised and rewarded within the organisation.

Better practice resources for implementing early intervention programs

Drawing on recommendations from Comcare’s early intervention pilot, we have developed better practice resources to support organisations to implement effective early intervention programs.

More information

Research and evidence

Comcare partnered with several Australian Public Sector agencies to test a structured and independent early intervention service. See the findings of the early intervention service pilot project.

Comcare releases a regular report on latest research and emerging evidence on work health and safety issues. This sometimes include research about early intervention.

Page last reviewed: 25 June 2024

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Date printed 18 Jul 2024