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Representations: An Important Key to Understanding Workers’ Coping Behaviors During Rehabilitation and the Return-to-Work Process

Abstract

Introduction

Every year many workers are excluded from work because of a work disability attributable to a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). Factors associated with the development and persistence of the work disability can be related to the worker, work environment, compensation policies, healthcare system and insurance system. Workers’ understanding/representations of their disability are associated with coping behaviors aimed at helping them adapt to or solve their health problem. A representation is a complex, organized entity incorporating thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes regarding a particular subject. Representations have been studied in anthropology, sociology and psychology since the 1960s, but often in a compartmentalized way. These representations provide an important key to understanding what motivates workers during rehabilitation and the return-to-work process. To build upon disciplinary knowledge and better understand workers’ efforts to cope with their persistent disability, this article therefore aims to pool the different knowledge available on the illness representation concept, from the fields of anthropology, sociology and psychology in order to gain a better understanding of its application in the MSD context.

Methods

An electronic literature search (French, English) from 1960 on was conducted in medical, paramedical and social science databases (MedLINE, PsychINFO, CINAHL, etc.) using predetermined key words. After screening abstracts based on a set of criteria, content analysis was performed on the 131 articles retained. Results: The theoretical models and approaches can be divided into three categories: (1) personal experience; (2) interactionist; and (3) sociocultural. The models found in sociology and anthropology are mainly descriptive and developed in a medical context, and only rarely in an occupational health context. However, these models could add elements to psychosocial models that are more dynamic and oriented toward understanding the reasons behind specific behaviors.

Conclusion

Bridging the gap between these disciplines will help us achieve a new level of knowledge that will, by taking social interactions into account, enhance understanding of workers’ representations, and the behaviors they adopt to manage their MSD-related disability.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported by a grant from the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité au travail (IRSST). We also wish to thank the IRSST for providing support for the bibliographical literature search. In addition, we are grateful to Mr. Jacques Blain, who provided us with his expertise in bibliographical databases.

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Correspondence to Marie-France Coutu.

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Coutu, MF., Baril, R., Durand, MJ. et al. Representations: An Important Key to Understanding Workers’ Coping Behaviors During Rehabilitation and the Return-to-Work Process. J Occup Rehabil 17, 522–544 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10926-007-9089-9

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Keywords

  • Representations
  • Beliefs
  • Attitudes
  • Disability
  • Work rehabilitation
  • Musculoskeletal disorder