HomeEmployee ExperienceEngagementReturning to work

Returning to work

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Workplace absence currently costs the UK economy £18 billion per year in lost productivity but, by 2030, the figure is expected to leap to hit a vast £26 billion. How can we help employees return to work?

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According to research entitled ‘Change at Work: How Absence, Attitudes, and Demographics are impacting UK employers’ conducted by the Centre of Economic and Business Research mental health issues are, and will continue to be, the single biggest contributor to these absence levels. Second on the list are musculoskeletal problems, which are particularly prevalent among older workers and are only expected to become more common as the population continues to age.

As for the number of staff experiencing long-term absence – which is generally taken to mean they are off work for four weeks or more – Willis Towers Watson’s ‘Employee Benefits and Wellbeing Barometer 2017’ revealed that just under one in five had taken extended sick leave over the last five years. A second study entitled ‘The Global Benefits Attitudes Survey 2017-18’ found that, over the last 24 months, mental health problems had led around 13% to take long periods of time off work.

Vicki Field, HR director at private GP services provider London Doctors Clinic, says: “According to Department of Work and Pensions’ figures, 900,000 or so individuals take a prolonged period of sickness absence each year, but as many as 300,000 won’t return to their jobs. So it’s important that employers manage the situation, particularly in relation to mental health, or people will simply fall out of the employment market, which has big repercussions on the individual, the company and the wider economy.”

This means it is vital to ensure that an employee’s return to work is made as easy as possible. Doing so is not only about ensuring effective policies in place but also about making certain that individuals feel suitably supported during and after the transition.

In the case of planned absences such as maternity or paternity leave, for instance, it is important to introduce guidelines around appropriate levels of communication during a worker’s period of absence.

Field explains: “You can do a lot of things to help people feel involved when they are away such as asking them to social events such as Christmas parties and inviting them in to show off the baby. But there’s a fine line between being helpful and being intrusive, so we leave it to the individual to guide us on how much contact they want.”

Fairness and consistency

On returning, the secret is to negotiate what works best for each individual, particularly in terms of working hours. “Leaving your baby behind for the first time can be very stressful, so working short or even half days initially can help people get used to being back. So it’s about being sympathetic to where they’re coming from and giving them a bit of leeway.”

Inflexible or part-time working terms, this means coaching line managers not to schedule team meetings on the days that people are not in the office or expecting them to cram five days of work into four.

On the sickness absence side of things, meanwhile, HR teams are recommended to devise a ‘return to work’ policy, which lays out the action that will be taken in this scenario.

Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson Health and Benefits, explains the rationale: “It’s about enshrining fairness and consistency so that the policy is the same for everyone. HR’s role here is to ensure things are fair across the organisation, so that one part doesn’t end up having different rules to another.”

The first step involves conducting a risk assessment to establish what risks an individual now faces due to their illness that they may not have faced before. For example, if someone has injured their back, they may no longer be able to negotiate stairs, or certain triggers may need to be avoided if they have experienced mental health issues.

Depending on the situation, it may also make sense to have an occupational assessment carried out by a medical professional. This evaluation will indicate whether an individual is capable of returning to work or not, whether they are able to undertake full or limited duties and whether any reasonable adjustments are required such as giving someone a seat on the ground floor if they problems with the stairs.

“An occupational health assessment backs up a risk assessment, and they’re both useful to have on file,” says Blake. “It’s about protecting yourself against tribunals under the Equality Act as you can show you’ve been acting fairly and consistently – but they should also help you to get the employee back to work as effectively as possible.”

Guide and be guided

The next step is to develop a plan based on both assessments, plus input from an individual’s line manager. This plan should outline details such as suitable working hours and what tasks the employee is able to perform. All of this must then be discussed with the individual concerned at various ‘return to work’ meetings, including one on their first day back.

Pam Rogerson, HR director at business support services provider Elas, explains: “Always have a few meetings with employees to discuss how their return will be and whether they would benefit from things like a phased return or flexible working. You shouldn’t just impose it on them – you have to guide, and be guided, by the individual.”

The situation should then be reviewed on a weekly basis by the individual’s line manager to establish whether further adjustments need to be made as time goes on. The outcome of each review must then be put on file.

“HR’s role is about providing guidance and processes and keeping things consistent,” says Blake. “But in an ideal world, you want line managers involved in the reviews as they know the employee and can hopefully have the right conversation with them.”

Before allowing an employee back to work at all though, warns Janice Haddon, founder and managing director of leadership development firm Morgan Redwood, it is vital to obtain a medical certificate “stating that the individual is fit and ready to work”.

This is not least because of the growing issue of presenteeism, which is associated with common mental health conditions such as stress – one of the top causes of long-term sickness absence in the first place – and can end up exacerbating it.

But ultimately London Doctors’ Field believes that prevention is always better than cure, particularly in the case of mental health issues. As a result, she advises HR teams to monitor absence rates in order to track patterns of behaviour, and at the same time help line managers to spot signs of trouble. These signs might include someone looking scruffy when they had previously always taken care of their appearance or losing their temper easily when they were placid in the past.

“People with mental health problems also tend to take intermittent, short-term absences before it becomes long-term,” she says. “But if you measure, monitor and manage the situation by dealing with each person on an individual basis, you may be able to intervene before things become serious.”

Case study

Helen, who is an NHS manager, has taken maternity leave twice. In the second instance, she was off work for the statutory 12 months and returned in September 2011.

Just before she went on leave, Helen had a discussion with her line manager and made it explicit that she “would like to place my full attention on raising my child, and so did not request any minutes of meetings/key documents to be sent to me”. She also declined 10 possible “keeping in touch” days of paid employment and chose not to attend any maternity coffee groups in order to network with other new mothers as she already had an established network of her own.

But Helen says: “At no time did this decision cause me any detriment and, in fact, I felt my line manager fully respected my needs and choices.”

About three months before going back to work though, she met up with her manager to discuss what her return would look like. Because her key challenge involved fitting in work around nursery opening hours, Helen’s boss agreed to both let her start work early so she could pick her children up at the end of the day and work from home if they were ill.

“Flexible working and work-life balance policies set out the legal obligations of the organisation,” says Helen. “This was a good foundation. I was also extremely fortunate that my line manager allowed me the autonomy to manage most of my time as long as the projects I had were delivered.”

As for how employers can ensure they make it as easy as possible for staff to return to work smoothly and easily, Helen believes that “good communication is key”.

The secret is “talking to a manager who is able to understand, empathise and trust the person coming back. I was always going to make my working transition work and was always mindful of the need to balance the needs of the service with that of my own family. Being able to talk that through was key”, she concludes.

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