Return to work interviews – Why do them?

Do you have high levels of short-term absence? Do you struggle to maintain productivity due to staff shortages? In this article we explore why and how a return to work interview can become an effective business tool for reducing sickness absence. On Thursday 13th April from 10am – 11am, we will be exploring return to work interviews in much greater detail by hosting our live webinar. If you would like to register for this webinar, you can do so here.

What is a return-to-work interview?

A return to work interview (RTW) is an informal discussion that takes place on an employee’s return to work following a period of sickness absence.  During which, their absence is discussed with the aim of improving that person’s sickness record which ultimately, contributes towards lowering absenteeism across the business.

What are the benefits of carrying out a return-to-work interview?

There are many benefits to both employee and employer for conducting return to work interviews and evidence shows they can be one of the most important tools for lowering sickness absence.  Other benefits include:

  • Provides you with the opportunity to check that the employee is well enough to return, therefore ensuring you comply with your duty of care obligations.
  • Enables you to comply with your legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010, specifically, your obligation to make reasonable adjustments to support a disability.
  • Allows you to take steps to either adjust the workload or reallocate, if there are some tasks that they temporarily cannot do.
  • The fact that the business carries them out tells employees that the business monitors sickness absence and can therefore act as a deterrent for those that may not be genuine.
  • Enables you to find out if there are any workplace issues that are contributing to or causing the sickness absence and therefore allow the business to take action and address.

Furthermore, in a study carried out by Personnel Today, a leading UK HR magazine, found that two out of three employers believed return to work interviews cut sickness absence.  The study was carried out on 182 organisations which employed a combined total of 705,000 employees   also revealed:

  • 70% of organisations in manufacturing and production were the most positive about the use of interviews
  • 63% of organisations in the private sector and 60% public sector, were positive in their use
  • 67% of organisation’s employing less than 250 employees found them to reduce sickness absence versus 60% of larger organisations
  • 85% of organisations expect line managers to conduct the interview for all absences regardless of the length of the absence.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) also cite in their 2022 report ‘Health and Wellbeing at Work’, that return to work interviews are one of the most common methods used to manage and promote attendance.  83% of employers use them in managing long term absence with 78% of employers using them to manage short term absence.

So, you can see that it is a crucial tool for effective absence management, whether that is lowering absenteeism or enabling you to comply with your legal obligations when it comes to employee’s health and wellbeing.

What are your legal obligations when it comes to an employee’s health and wellbeing?

You will be familiar with the Equality Act 2010, when it comes to supporting employees with physical and mental disabilities, but there are wider and more broader obligations on an employer when it comes to the wellbeing of its workforce.

A contract of employment contains an implied term that the employer will take reasonable care for the employee’s health and safety.  Furthermore, the scope of this term extends to circumstances where a third party becomes responsible for the employee’s safety.

Here are some examples of how a return-to-work interview demonstrates an employer is meeting their legal obligations regarding the health and wellbeing of their employees:

  1. In the RTW, the employee tells you that they feel well enough to return but their GP or registered healthcare professional has recommended (noted on their Fit Note) that they can return but only undertaking light duties. They are employed as a Store Assistant involved with stacking shelves.  You discuss the fit note with the employee and how the recommendations can be accommodated.  You agree by adapting their duties so they work on the tills for the first three weeks where they can be seated and will remove the need for lifting.
  2. Your employee tells you that they have been referred by their GP for further investigations at the local hospital. Their condition has resulted in the employee having 6 occasions of sickness absence in the last 12 months, totalling 24 working days.   You ask the employee to attend an Occupational Health appointment so that the business can get a medical opinion on their health and any impact on their job role it may have.  Therefore, you are looking to explore if any adaptations are necessary.

Getting the most from the RTW

For the business to gain the benefits of carrying out return to work process, here are our recommendations on how best to conduct them:

Prepare, prepare, and prepare! Failing to prepare is preparing to fail!  If you want to achieve the ultimate aim of reducing sickness absence, then you need to be equipped and ready when entering the discussion.  Look back at the employee’s absence record for the previous 12 month rolling period….

– What are the total number of days
– How many occasions?
– Any pattern with when the absence occurs, such as falling on Friday’s or Monday’s, or on or around pay day?
– Is there a reoccurrence of a particular health issue, such as migraines?
– Are there any underlying medical conditions?
– Are there currently workplace adaptations in place?

Treat the interview as a welfare discussion. It is informal, and it is best to put the employee at ease to get the most out of the discussion. It shouldn’t become an interrogation because then it may come across that you are distrusting.  Instead, asking open questions that are genuinely focussed on helping the employee with attending work is crucial.  Remember, the fact that you are having the discussion, and you are on top of their absence levels, will be enough to act as a deterrent if someone does happen to take absence when they don’t always need to!

Capture the discussion in writing using a template return to work form. This is key for the ongoing management of that person’s absence and to achieve better attendance.  It also acts as your evidence that you are fulfilling your legal obligations exercising your duty of care, but also from an Equality Act perspective should anyone have a disability.

Remember what the purpose is for conducting return to work interviews and structure your questions and discussion points around this. This ensures you are acting fairly by asking only for relevant information that is reasonably necessary to help support an improved attendance level and health support.  For example:

– Welcome the employee back to work letting them know that they have been missed
– Asking about their health and reason for their absence. You need to be satisfied that the employee is well enough to return
– If they have received treatment, enquire around what this was and if the treatment/medication has had any side effects that could impact them at work
– Consider if medical advice is required from either Occupational Health, their GP, or another medical professional
– Explore the health contributing to the absence, and if it involves work issues, find out what has caused it with the aim of resolving
– Raise any concerns around patterns in their absence, for example, if it always falls around a weekend. Not in an accusatory way but noting it as an observation.  If someone is absent around weekends to extend the time away from work, then the fact that the observation has been noted will help to deter them from continuing to do so
– Set out what their absence record is for the 12 month rolling period and what this means in the context of your own company policy. For example, if you have absence triggers, and their most recent absence now takes them over the amount that is tolerated, then make clear this has occurred and what it now means under your policy rules
– Work with the employee to explore what measures can be taken to improve attendance.

Remember, it is about how you communicate to your employees that is really important.

The return to work meeting is a wellbeing discussion not an interrogation, so soft skills such as empathy, remaining objective, asking open ended questions, actively listening and inviting the employee to share their side are extremely valuable and make an effective discussion, which aim to ultimate reduce future sickness absence.

We are here to help

If you would like to speak to a member of our team, or you are considering outsourcing your Health and Safety, Payroll, or HR, you can contact us on 0844 324 5840 or get in touch with us here.




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