Purpose The aim of this study was to evaluate the effect of a multidisciplinary intervention (MDI) compared to a brief intervention (BI) with respect to return to work (RTW), pain and disability in workers on sick leave because of neck or shoulder pain. Methods 168 study participants with sickness absence for 4–16 weeks due to neck or shoulder pain were enrolled in a hospital-based clinical study and randomized to either MDI or BI. The primary outcome was RTW obtained by a national registry on public transfer payments. Secondary outcomes were self-reported pain and disability levels. One-year follow-up RTW rates were estimated by Cox proportional hazard regression adjusted for gender, age, sick leave prior to inclusion, part-time sick leave and clinical diagnosis. Secondary outcomes were analysed using logistic and linear regression analysis for pain and disability, respectively. Results In the MDI group, 50 participants (59%) experienced four or more continuous weeks of RTW while 48 (58%) returned to work in the BI group during the 1 year of follow-up. Results showed a statistically non significant tendency towards a lower rate of RTW in the MDI group than in the BI group (adjusted HR = 0.84, 95% CI 0.54, 1.31). There were no statistically significant differences in secondary outcomes between the MDI and BI groups. Conclusion The brief and the multidisciplinary interventions performed equally with respect to both primary and secondary outcomes. The added focus on RTW in the multidisciplinary group did not improve RTW rates in this group.