How to support returning employees

After any absence, communication can help

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Thursday, Jun 10, 2021

Coming back to work after absence isn’t always easy for employees, or straightforward. Long-term or even short-term sickness can damage an employee’s confidence. They can feel out of the loop with their colleagues, or that their illness has hampered their ability to do a good job.

In some cases, medical reasons for absence will affect the employee’s ability to do their job. In other cases, the employee will just need a warm welcome back. Here’s how HR can support employees to make as speedy and effective a return as possible.

Support can start with the doctor’s fit note

Every organisation should require timely notification on the first day of an employee’s absence. If the absence continues for more than seven says (including non-working days), you should request a doctor’s ‘fit note’.

The fit note may include:

  • The medical condition causing the absence
  • The doctor’s opinion on whether the employee needs a phased return to work, altered hours, amended duties, or workplace adaptations
  • Other comments on changes to the employee’s ability to work

This will give you a good, early indication of the length of the absence and support the employee might need.

Staying in touch with the employee

If a long-term absence is expected, you should keep in touch with the employee throughout. Regular communication helps the employee to feel valued.

Reasons you can get in touch include informing the employee about workplace and job changes, or just asking for the latest about their condition. This helps you stay up to date with their return date too.

Engaging occupational health

If your organisation has the resources, you can support employees returning to work through an occupational health service or your company doctor. Occupational health involvement should start once you know the absence is serious.

Occupational health can provide:

  • a second opinion on fitness for work and necessary workplace adjustments
  • development of a return to work plan for the employee
  • advice on how to prevent similar absences, if the absence is due to a workplace incident

Making reasonable adjustments for returning employees

Once you have a return date for the employee, and how their needs have changed, you can start planning the adjustments they need to return to work.

Under the Employment Act 2010, you have an obligation to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for employees who’ve become disabled. Adjustments can include adjusting their job role, installing new equipment such as a wheelchair ramp, offering new equipment, training or another role altogether.

If you later dismiss the employee because they’re unable to continue working for you, you might need to prove to an employment tribunal that you offered reasonable adjustments.

The return-to-work interview

You should conduct a return-to-work interview on the day the employee comes back. After a long-term absence, it might be better to schedule the interview a few days earlier, so you can develop a back-to-work plan.

If you haven’t stayed in touch or engaged occupational health, this will also be the time to find out about the employee’s support needs.

Make sure you:

  • welcome the employee back and get them up to speed with what’s been happening
  • discuss the reason for the absence
  • discuss follow-up support including reasonable adjustments or a phased return

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