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Work Conditioning vs. Work Hardening

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Employers are responsible for getting employees back on their feet after a work-related injury. Physical conditioning and rehabilitation programs are crucial components of workplace safety and productivity. Two common types of rehabilitation programs used in the workplace are work conditioning and work hardening. While these terms may sound similar, their goals and intensities differ, leading to different employee outcomes. So, which should your workplace use? Join us as we examine the differences between work conditioning and work hardening. Discover the benefits they can provide for workers and employers.

What is work conditioning?

Work conditioning is a physical rehabilitation program designed to help workers regain strength, endurance, and function. In turn, this allows them to return to pre-injury work. This physical rehabilitation program’s principles are rooted in physical and occupational therapy, optimizing an individual’s physical readiness to return to work safely. This program often includes strength training and exercises to improve motor control, flexibility, and strength. These exercises and activities typically mimic the physical demands of the individual’s job, tailored to ensure they can perform their tasks adequately and safely. In essence, work conditioning seeks to emulate the individual’s career. It gives them the necessary tools and ability to perform their job again.

Work conditioning is typically used for workers who have completed initial medical treatment and need further rehabilitation. This program is generally for individuals recovering from musculoskeletal injuries, surgeries, or other conditions impacting their ability to perform job-related tasks. This process enables the patient’s recovery and prevents any future injuries by restoring physical capabilities. Additionally, it reduces anxiety associated with returning to a job.

What is work hardening?

Work hardening is an intensive program designed to help individuals return to their pre-injury work level most safely and efficiently. Combining physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychological counseling, and vocational support provides an interdisciplinary approach that ensures whole-person recovery. 

This intensive, holistic program begins with thoroughly evaluating the employee’s physical capabilities, functional limitations, psychological factors, and vocational goals. This helps medical providers tailor the interdisciplinary program to the employee’s needs and goals. Studies show that this interdisciplinary approach is associated with positive outcomes for employees recovering from work-related injuries. These programs are typically designed for individuals with more complex or severe physical or psychological barriers to returning to work, such as those with chronic pain, significant functional impairments, or multiple coexisting conditions.

Work-hardening programs increase the return to work rate by over 50%. This program involves a combination of exercises, job simulation activities, and functional capacity testing, intending to prepare the worker for a safe return to their pre-injury job duties. Ultimately, work hardening seeks to improve an employee’s physical and psychological tolerance, preparing them to return to their job with resilience.

Differences Between Work Conditioning and Work Hardening

While work conditioning and hardening are rehabilitation programs designed to help injured workers return to work, the two programs have some critical differences. Work conditioning is considered a more moderate-intensity therapy, whereas work hardening is much more intensive and has longer sessions and duration. 

Additionally, work conditioning typically involves:

  • Collaboration with a physical therapist and occupational therapist.
  • Helping injured workers regain physical strength.
  • Endurance.
  • Flexibility to return to their pre-injury job duties safely and effectively.

In contrast, work hardening focuses on the whole worker, collaborating with medical providers, physical therapists, and psychological therapists to provide a holistic recovery. 

Though these programs have different methods, their goals are essentially the same: to prepare injured employees to return to work safely.

Choosing the Right Program for Your Employees

When choosing the right program for your employees, it is essential to consider their needs and experiences. Consider the risks of the workplace and the current health status of your employees. However, depending on the injury and its effects, both programs may suit your employees. Work conditioning and hardening programs can be a practical part of workplace safety, ensuring employees can safely return to work.

Call Serenity Healthcare Partners Today!

If you or someone you know is struggling with chronic pain that is affecting your ability to work, Serenity Healthcare Partners can help. Our holistic functional restoration program focuses on improving physical functioning, mental health, and coping skills. Contact Serenity Healthcare Partners today to learn more about our program and how we can help you or your loved one regain function and return to work safely.

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