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Sickness Absence – How to do a return to work interview

Published on 14 Oct, 2015
Jean Fisher
Content Manager

Occupational Health Blog.

Are you doing return to work interviews after sickness absence?

The return to work interview is in my opinion, the ‘missing link’ in reducing sickness absence levels at work. If you methodically carry them out, it will put you in complete control of your team’s attendance. Increasing levels of short term absence are likely to lead to periods of long term absence, so early intervention, by undertaking return to work interviews, is so important.

I believe that the first step in reducing and managing short term absence is to ensure all staff have to call and speak to their Manager on the first day of absence. No texts, no phone calls from partners and definitely no emails. Managers should be fully informed about what is happening with their employees and having a conversation with them about why they cannot come into work, is surely the single most important step in managing and supporting employees. Many employees will think twice about not coming into work if they have to have this conversation.

If a short term absence does occur then the second management step is to ensure that when the employee returns, they do not simply just slip back into work. A structured return to work interview must take place. It doesn’t have to take long. 10 minutes is all it takes, but it will be the most useful 10 minutes you will ever spend. It should provide an opportunity to identify the development of ill health or other issues which may affect attendance in the future. The return to work interview can, if done well, bring a number of benefits.

So, how do you carry it out? Here is a simple checklist of points to consider:-

  • Always firstly review previous employee absence levels so a full picture is available.
  • Plan the conversation with the employee in advance – what are the possible next steps?
  • Read to the employee what the attendance policy says regarding short term absence triggers.
  • Identify and discuss any work-related concerns with the employee.
  • Does it appear that a health issue is present?
  • If you are notified of work-related stress then a stress risk assessment should be carried out.
  • Don’t write to the GP for a report – use occupational health.
  • Consider a referral to occupational health to establish if an underlying health issue is present or not. Don’t make that judgement yourself. How can you?
  • If an ongoing medical condition is present then reasonable adjustments may need to be reviewed. A review with Occupational Health may be needed for further advice.
  • Always make sure you refer to Occupational Health to exclude or confirm a health issue before you start down the disciplinary route.
  • Disability related absences need to be managed in line with the Equality Act.
  • Document what is discussed at the return to work interview so you have continuing records to refer to if future absences occur.

Short term absences can often go unnoticed in a busy company where colleagues fill the void of the absent employee. It can be an interesting exercise to look at how many days are lost in your organisation due to frequent short term absence. Are you inadvertently employing extra people to ensure absence does not affect your business? Could this be just a sicking plaster to keep things going rather than an effective strategy to manage health issues in your workplace and reduce costs?

If you actively manage and engage with employees who are having repeated short term absences this will have multiple benefits, so get into the habit now.


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