Return to work interviews

Many organisations include return to work interviews as part of their absence management procedure, requiring employees to meet with their line manager on return from every sickness absence irrespective of the length of the absence.

They are widely recognised as the most effective tool for managing absence. Not only are they effective at managing and supporting an employee’s wellbeing but are also an effective tool at reducing sickness absence.

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 (short and long term). 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.

Benefits of conducting return to work interviews

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:

  1. Provides you with the opportunity to check that the employee is well enough to return, as far as is reasonably possible, therefore ensuring you comply with your duty of care obligations.
  2. Enables you to comply with your legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010, specifically, your obligation to make reasonable adjustments to support a disability.
  3. Can help identify any underlying medical conditions or disabilities enabling the business to take necessary steps to support any long term conditions or disabilities in the workplace to support ongoing attendance
  4. Allows you to take steps to either adjust the workload or reallocate, if there are some tasks that they temporarily cannot do.
  5. 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.
  6. Attempt to get the employee to accept responsibility for doing whatever they can to reduce the likelihood of the same situation arising in the future by addressing any problem that is causing or contributing to the absence
  7. 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.
  8. Allows you to update the employee on what has happened during their absence and agree revised work priorities

Aims of a return to work interview

The main aims of a return to work interview are to:

  • make the employee feel valued – if they feel that their absence isn’t even noticed, this quickly lessens commitment to your business
  • ensure that the employee is fit to return and identify the cause of the absence, especially if it is work-related
  • take any steps to adjust the workload if necessary, or to reallocate work if there are some tasks that the employee is temporarily unable to do
  • attempt to get the employee to accept responsibility for doing whatever they can to reduce the likelihood of the same situation arising in the future by addressing any problem that is causing or contributing to the absence and
  • update the employee on what has happened during their absence and agree revised work priorities.

Prepare for the interview

Before seeing the employee, establish the facts:

  • what reasons were originally given for the absence?
  • are there any other factors to be aware of, such as home or personal difficulties?
  • review the attendance record – can you see any trends or patterns?
  • have the attendance record to hand and visible at the meeting if necessary
  • did the employee follow the absence reporting procedures correctly?
Consider who should conduct the interview

If practicable, the option of having this meeting with an alternative manager of the same sex or a member of the HR department (if you have one) may be offered. Such a structured approach to managing absence helps to ensure a consistent way of dealing with absence and avoids grievances from employees who perceive variations in dealing with such matters. It has been shown that absences fall most significantly where senior managers are responsible for absence management.

Prepare the tone of the interview

Clearly, any discussion will vary depending on the nature, length and frequency of the illness but in all cases the tone of the interview should be compassionate, not challenging.

The idea is not to throw doubt on the employee’s honesty or integrity by suggesting that they may not have been ill, but to show concern and ensure that they know that the absence has been noticed and has an effect on the smooth running of the business.

The interview provides an opportunity to praise as well as raise concerns and the majority of staff who have excellent attendance records, but who are occasionally genuinely sick, should not be criticised. Instead comments should be made as to how good their general attendance record is.

Always ensure that privacy is maintained and there are no interruptions. For someone who is hardly ever absent it may seem heavy handed to hold a meeting in an unfamiliar environment.

The meeting itself – more detailed guidance

There are no rules for these meetings and the length and content will vary, depending on the circumstances.  However, the following may be useful guidance:

  • Hold the return to work meeting on the day of return – do not put this off.
  • See every employee on return from absence, not just those where you suspect there may be a problem.
  • Ensure that the meeting is held in private.
  • Open the discussion by showing concern at the employee’s absence – we missed you and hope you are feeling better now?
  • Ask the employee for their completed self-certification form and use this as the initial basis for your discussion, or use our return to work form.
  • Confirm the reason for the absence and whether medical advice was sought (if appropriate).
  • Ask questions: “You told us/Your sick note says that the reason for your absence was xxxx. What treatment did you take to help your recovery? Have you seen your doctor about your illness? Do you require any further treatment? Are you taking any medication which may affect you at work, eg making you drowsy etc? Are you fully recovered? If the employee gets emotional or says that the reason is personal, do not continue to probe but show respect for their private life.
  • If it seems that an illness is ongoing, or the individual is not fully recovered, check:
    • “Is there anything (eg lifting/handling) we shouldn’t be asking you to do currently?” or “Has your recent illness affected your ability to undertake your full duties straightaway or are there any work activities from which you should refrain until fully recovered?” (If there are any physical problems, eg back problems, look at the health and safety issues and take advice if necessary – you may need to take precautions to prevent a further recurrence.)
    • “Do you have any remaining symptoms such as tiredness or dizziness etc?” If the employee feels that they are suffering from stress, then ask whether this is caused by any work-related factors or attributable to personal issues.
  • If appropriate, check whether the absence was caused by an accident. If so, was this at work? If yes, confirm that it was entered into the accident book and check whether there are any steps you should take to prevent further recurrence. If the employee was absent for more than seven days due to an accident at work, check that you have complied with the statutory requirement to report this.
  • Review their attendance record. If it’s excellent, say so. If there are lots of odd days off, show it to the employee and discuss: “is this an ongoing problem? Do you feel that there is any underlying trend to your absences – any patterns? Anything specific which is causing your absences? Are you taking any steps to address this/control the situation? Is there anything at work which is causing your absences or making them worse? If personal, is there anything we can do to help? (advice, counselling, changes in working times etc)”.
  • Put this into context if appropriate by comparing the employee’s absence against your average levels. If their absences are starting to become frequent, is there cause for concern? You may wish to suggest a further trip to the doctor for a check. Where appropriate agree on a course of action and get commitment to this.
  • Did the employee comply with your reporting procedures? If not, explain that these must be followed and outline these again. Remind the employee where to find these details (for example in a policy or in your employee handbook). If the employee has failed to comply and seems to have no good reason for this, consider whether disciplinary action is necessary, make a file note of the discussion and then proceed separately on this.
  • Review the total absence against your sick pay entitlements. Warn the employee if they are getting close to running out of either contractual sick pay or statutory sick pay, and, if the former, explain that statutory sick pay will only be paid thereafter and if the latter, explain that the employee will need to claim any other sickness benefits.
  • Update the employee on what has happened whilst they were off sick: any announcements, changes in the business, anyone left/joined/colleagues on holiday etc, update on any other developments or work of theirs which has been undertaken by anyone else during the absence. Only if appropriate (ie lots of short absences) advise the employee of any difficulties in obtaining adequate cover and any additional strain on his or her colleagues.
  • Close the meeting by signing the self-certification of absence form and updating the absence record and by genuinely welcoming the employee back. Remember to praise if attendance is normally good. Make the employee realise that it matters to you and to the business that they come to work regularly. You may wish to record your discussions on our return to work interview form.

Disciplinary action

Be prepared to take disciplinary action where necessary. Where employees fail to follow absence notification procedures, or where their continued repeated absence is causing problems, these need to be properly managed. (Long-term sickness is a different issue and would normally be dealt with differently.) Similarly, do consider whether any of your systems, procedures or working conditions are causing problems and increasing levels of non-attendance and if so, what action should be taken to improve these.

Further considerations

Finally, if absence is a problem in one particular department or location, do consider whether there may be any other reasons for this (physical environment, nature of the jobs, poor management etc).

Consider whether a more flexible approach to working patterns might work better. If strict working conditions and a culture which mitigates against taking time off mean that employees take an unauthorised day off and pretend to be ill in order to deal with other matters, it may be worth considering whether some degree of flexible working may reduce your absence levels.

If the levels in one department or section seem particularly high, investigate the reason for this. Is it because the manager is not following the same procedures as other departments? Is there a bullying or harassment issue? Are the working conditions or tasks within that department significantly different and if so, is there a good reason for this? What steps can you take to improve attendance?

Don’t forget the aim

There is nothing to be gained from acting so severely that genuinely sick individuals feel compelled to come to work and share their germs with everyone else. A careful balance needs to be struck. The aim of managing absence is to reduce the number of casual days of absence which staff may be tempted to take if there is no control, and to also better manage the rehabilitation and return to work of those who are genuinely ill and who need to be eased back in gently.

Legal considerations

It is important that such meetings take place as a routine process for all employees – otherwise the approach becomes inconsistent and can even lead to allegations of bullying or harassment. Once such meetings become part of the culture, this will have an impact and the important message – that the employee is missed, the absence noted and discussed – will get through.

All employees have a contractual obligation to attend work consistently and the Employment Rights Act 1996 permits the dismissal of an employee on the grounds of “capability”, which includes ill-health. Dismissal will occur when the employer is not able to tolerate the effect of an employee’s absence any longer. In cases of genuine ill-health it is clearly a last resort and when a return to work is not possible in the foreseeable future .

When absence is due to malingering, rather than genuine ill-health, dismissal could be justified on the grounds of misconduct. As with any dismissal, the essential legal test is whether or not the employer acted reasonably in treating the absence as a sufficient reason to dismiss.

However special care does need to be taken with disabled employees, if making reasonable adjustments would enable them to achieve a satisfactory standard of attendance.  Before any dismissal where there is a disability involved, then all reasonable adjustments must have been fully exhausted before taking the action to dismiss.

Supporting Documents

If you are looking to hold your own return to work interview but require some additional guidance, we’ve got you covered.

We have created a helpful return to work interview form which is free to download and can be used within your own business.

You can download this form from our HR Doc Shop, here.

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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