The role of social dialogue in return to work after chronic illness



Chronic illness affects a large and growing number of workers globally and the challenges posed by chronic health conditions are well documented, for employees, organisations, healthcare and economic systems and society more broadly.  At the organisation-level much attention has focused on employee health costs which include the direct cost of any health plan, costs due to employee absenteeism, and costs due to reduced productivity among employees not working at full capacity.  For individuals, working with a chronic illness may lead to poor quality of working life, high levels of absenteeism and/or presenteeism (McGonagle, Schmidt and Speights, 2020). Chronic illnesses are shown to have significant societal costs as they depress wages, workforce participation and labour productivity, as well as increase early retirement and high job turnover.  It is widely acknowledged that there is a need to tackle disability (including chronic illness) and employment issues.  Many countries ratified the UN Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities which covers a broad range of areas including job retention measures and vocational rehabilitation (UN, 2006) in order to support retention of chronically ill workers in the workplace.  Key within this is managing the return to work (RTW) of those with long-standing/chronic health conditions through effective rehabilitative return to work policies and practices (Dibben, Wood and O’ Hara, 2018; Shaw et a., 2008).  Returning to work after a medium- to long-term sickness absence is a complex process however.  How to deal with this phenomenon given employees are working longer and surviving illness due to improvements in healthcare is a pressing issue for those involved in all aspects of people management.  The ability to successfully return to work depends, not only on the health condition of the employee but also, more importantly on a person’s physical, social, attitudinal and political environment (Foitzek et al., 2018). There is a need for a better understanding of how these factors either impede or facilitate a sustainable RTW for workers with and after chronic illness by engaging with a range of actors within and outside the workplace.  Existing studies on return to work have explored employees' experience of returning to work and the role of the organisation in supporting this process (Tiedtke et al., 2017). This SI seeks to explore the role of other potential actors such as HR professionals, trade unions and employee representatives in influencing the RTW process. Besides the role of social dialogue actors such as Governments, trade unions, employer bodies and NGOs can have on relevant legislation in return to work will also be further explored given limited evidence on this topic (James et al., 2006).  

The major aim of this special is to advance scholarship in the area of return to work with a chronic illness, and add to our understanding of the ways in which social dialogue in particular shapes return to work policies and frameworks. The intention here is to both rejuvenate and integrate the fields of employment relations, disability and rehabilitation and public health by embracing a wider focus on return to work.   This SI will examine the role of employment relations on return to work after chronic illness. Specifically, we want to understand what social processes and systems within both organisations and national settings influence work participation and retention of workers returning to work with a chronic illness.  

List of topic areas

This special issue aims to provide contemporary and interdisciplinary insights into the practices, approaches, and strategies that define and shape return to work processes at global, European and national levels. We welcome manuscripts that are based on conceptual/theoretical reviews and/or empirical research (i.e., qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-method studies) pertaining to broad topics relevant to social dialogue and return to work after chronic illness.  We will be seeking submissions that engage with this topic from various disciplinary fields. Studies may describe any industry, country or geographical region. For an indicative list of questions, some of the topics that prospective authors can consider submitting their papers on are:  

•    What is the role of employers' associations, trade unions and state institutions in return to work after chronic conditions at national level?

•    How do different industrial relations systems influence return to work policies at national level? 

•    How do different national legislation frameworks across countries facilitate return to work after chronic illness? 

•    How are trade unions involved in influencing employers to offer reasonable accommodation to workers with chronic illnesses?

•    What are the gaps in training for managers in dealing with employees returning to work after/with a chronic illness?

•    How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted workers with chronic illness in the workplace?

•    What are the enabling conditions needed to support an employee returning to work following an absence due to a chronic illness? 

•    What is the role of the employers in facilitating return to work after chronic illness? 

•    What are the workers' perceptions on the role of trade unions in return to work after chronic illness?

•    What role do occupational medical professionals, social actors and patient groups play in influencing return to work processes and how do they provide support to employers and employees? 

Guest Editors

Margaret Heffernan, Dublin City University, Dublin 9, Ireland. [email protected]

Eugene Hickland, Dublin City University, Dublin 9, Ireland. [email protected]

Adela Elena Popa, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Sibiu, Romania. [email protected]

Submissions Information

Submissions are made using ScholarOne Manuscripts. Registration and access are available at:

Author guidelines must be strictly followed. Please see:

Authors should select (from the drop-down menu) the special issue title at the appropriate step in the submission process, i.e. in response to ““Please select the issue you are submitting to”. 

Submitted articles must not have been previously published, nor should they be under consideration for publication anywhere else, while under review for this journal.

Key deadlines

Opening date: 16.05.22
Closing date: 15.10.22
Email for submissions:  [email protected]  


Dibben, P., Wood, G. and O’Hara, R. (2018). Do return to work interventions for workers with disabilities and health conditions achieve employment outcomes and are they cost effective? A systematic narrative review, Employee Relations, 40(6), pp. 999-1014.
Foitzek, N., Ávila, C.C., Ivandic, I., Bitenc, Č., Cabello, M., Gruber, S., Leonardi, M., Muñoz-Murillo, A., Scaratti, C., Tobiasz-Adamczyk, B. and Vlachou, A. (2018). What persons with chronic health conditions need to maintain or return to work—Results of an online-survey in seven European countries. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(4), pp.595
James, P., Cunningham, I. and Dibben, P. (2006). Job retention and return to work of ill and injured workers: Towards an understanding of the organisational dynamics. Employee Relations, 28(3), pp.290-303.
McGonagle, A.K., Schmidt, S. and Speights, S.L. (2020). Work-Health Management Interference for Workers with Chronic Health Conditions: Construct Development and Scale Validation. Occupational Health Science, 4(4), pp.445-470.
Shaw, W., Hong, Q., Pransky, G. and Loisel, P.. (2008). A Literature Review Describing the Role of Return-to-Work Coordinators in Trial Programs and Interventions Designed to Prevent Workplace Disability. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 18 (1): 2–15.
Tiedtke, C. M., B. Dierckx de Casterlé, M. H. W. Frings-Dresen, A. G. E. M. De Boer, M. A. Greidanus, S. J. Tamminga, and A. E. De Rijk. (2017). Employers’ Experience of Employees with Cancer: Trajectories of Complex Communication. Journal of Cancer Survivorship: Research and Practice 11 (5): 562–77.
United Nations. (2006). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. New York: United Nations.