It may surprise you, but physical or medical factors can’t reliably predict when someone will return to work or whether they remain work-disabled.

But five psychological factors, i.e., what we believe and think, can. Although yet to be researched within athletes, it’s possible that these key psych factors might also have a large effect on if and when they return.

So if you want to recover faster, here are the 5 psychological factors that might well make the difference.

1. Expect to Recover

Those who expect to recover and return within a period of time after musculoskeletal injury are more likely to. Those who don’t, are more likely to not return and, as time goes by, are more likely to remain work-disabled.

In fact, recovery expectations are the strongest predictor of if/when we get back to work. They also affect whether we think negatively, blame others or become depressed – other factors that, as you’ll see, also predict reduced healing and slower return.

How? Research suggests that those with low recovery expectations put less effort into their recovery. For example, not doing rehab, missing treatment appointments, and maybe by having a less helpful working relationship their treating medic.

2. Have Confidence You Can Cope

Those who are confident they can cope with the symptoms, stresses or limitations of pain or injury return to work faster than those who are not.

Specific confidence like this comes from; our memory of past coping experiences, our views of how others cope, and whether we think we’re in control of the solutions.

3. Think Positively

Being positive keeps us away from catastrophising. Catastrophising is when we have constant, repetitive and exaggerated negative thoughts about the causes and consequences of anticipated or actual pain/injury. We want to avoid catastrophising as it increases our sense of helplessness, and effects recovery behaviour & return to work in many ways. Specifically, it’s linked with the following unhelpful outcomes:

  • Pain severity.
  • Pain and work-related disability.
  • Increased pain medication intake.
  • Depression.
  • A poorer response to many physical pain interventions, e.g., injections, surgery, physiotherapy.

4. Don’t Focus on the Injustice

Whether it was an illegal tackle, an unsafe environment that wasn’t fixed, or poor management leading to stress-related pain, it’s especially difficult to come to terms with life-affecting injury & pain when someone else is to blame.

But research shows that focusing on the injustice, e.g., blame and retribution, doesn’t help recovery and predicts work disability. For example, its shown to:

  • Slow physical recovery
  • Lead to more emotional distress.
  • Lead us to expect less benefit from treatment (which then reduces treatment success).
  • And maybe lead acute pain to become chronic.

Why? Because focusing on the injustice distracts us from doing what we need to do to recover, and adds stress that slows healing and increases pain.

5. Have Positive Health Beliefs

We all have ‘truths’ about our health & health behaviours. Positive, correct truths, help us heal and manage pain. Negative, incorrect beliefs can reduce this.

Negative, incorrect beliefs such as, “I’ll reinjure myself if I lift something/go back to sport”, “My back pain will only get better if I rest”, and “I’m a slow healer”, affect healing and pain in different, negative ways. These include:

  • Stopping you from doing the things that will help you recover faster.
  • Making your brain look for pain, which makes you notice and feel it more.
  • Leading to reduced attention and tense muscles that increases the chances of reinjury.

Positive, correct truths such as, “If I start slowly and build up gradually, I can go back to work/sport”, “If I understand my injury/pain, I can take control and manage my recovery”, and “With patience and some help, I can cope”, will help healing and recovery.


Being aware of these 5 psychological factors is key to getting back to whatever you need and love to do faster. So do what you can to ensure that your beliefs and thoughts are helpful.

We hope this article has been of interest and helpful.

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