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Return to Work Interviews-Why Bother?-5 Essentials for Managers.

Published on 27 Feb, 2013
Jean Fisher
Content Manager

The Occupational Health Business Ltd assists a wide range of organisations to effectively manage employee health issues and reduce absence.

In my experience as an Occupational Health Nurse return to work interviews are the ‘missing link’ in reducing sickness absence levels at work.  If they are done at all they are done in a ‘going through the motions’ kind of way and rarely lead to constructive or meaningful outcomes for either party.

In the case of short term absence in particular, they 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.

Here are my essential 5 points to focus on when conducting these interviews:-

1. Plan the conversation.

Planning is everything.  Look back at the employee’s attendance record and review the reasons for absence before you speak to them.  

Are the reasons all the same?  Are the reasons plausible?  i.e. flu 1 day, collapsed lung 3 days, other 3 days? Are the absences giving cause for concern? hospital appointment, hospital tests, scans etc.

Make sure you assemble all the facts before sitting down with the employee.Do this periodically for your team, even when they are in work, so that you can identify any problems developing and become familiar with attendance patterns.

2. Think about any possible work related concerns.

Has performance altered since last appraisal?  Have you noticed any changes in this employee?  If the employee is someone you don’t see very often, ask another manager/superviser who maybe sees the employee more regularly.  You are trying to determine if the employee has a health issue or if there is another issue, possibly work/home related, causing the absence.

3. Read your attendance policies and procedures.

Policies are there as a guide, but managers can spot very early signs of ill health before any policy trigger points are hit.  Often it can be easier to keep an employee in work by making adjustments, than to bring an employee back once absence occurs.

It is important to review where the employee’s attendance record sits with regard to the policy.  Have they had several absences and are well on the way to hitting a trigger for short term absence or does it look as if they might be developing significant health issues which may lead to a longer absence?

If you don’t have a policy then now is the time to introduce one.

4. Conduct the return to work interview and document what was discussed.

So many times I have seen something along these lines:-

Manager:  ‘So you’re back then’   

Employee:  ‘Yes’

Manager:   ‘What was the problem?   

Employee:  ‘Flu’

Manager:  ‘Are you better now?   

Employee:  ‘Yes’

Manager:  ‘OK, sign here’

Does this ring any bells?

So, how could this be improved? Firstly, welcome the employee back to work and explain that the meeting is supportive.  It is being held to ensure they are well enough to return and determine what the issue was exactly which prevented them attending work, as well as adhering to company guidance etc.  

Talk generally about home/work and how things are going.  This gives the employee an opportunity to talk about anything which may be of concern.

Then, be specific about their attendance record and any concerns you may have.  Refer the employee to an Occupational Health clinician for an opinion on whether the employee may be developing a health issue, or to confirm that the reasons for absence are nothing to do with the employee’s health.  Remember at the moment you can self-certify for up to 7 days and so people do not realise that a condition may be developing as they have not spoken to their GP or occupational health about their symptoms.  Often, when I see a referral, their symptoms tell me that they do have a health issue which needs further investigation by their GP, but they just don’t realise.

If they don’t have a health issue, but their attendance is poor, your policies should allow you to take steps to manage this.

5. Keep written records.

Keep records of meetings so you have useful notes to refer to and can continue the process, if further absences occur.  If the return to work interview looks like a more formal process to the employee, it will make them think twice about having unecessary absence in the future.  It will also assist those who may have or be developing health or other issues, to get appropriate support.

Always make sure you refer to Occupational Health to exclude or confirm a health issue before you start down the disciplinary route. Don’t write to the GP yourself as all you will get is the employee’s views via the GP and recommendations which you will then need to consider implementing, even if you don’t want to!


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