Research has shown that return-to-work interviews play a significant part in helping organisations to reduce absence levels. But as HR professionals will know, line managers are often reluctant to sit down, either formally or informally, with their employees when they come back to work after being off sick.
Usually, it’s because they see it as yet another time-consuming, administrative task, which quite frankly they’d prefer HR to be doing. They don’t really understand the value and resent having to fit it into an already-packed diary.
The challenge for HR is to get the message across that if return-to-work interviews are conducted sensitively and consistently, they can be a great tool to help managers reduce absence, support employees and improve engagement in their teams.
Here are five compelling reasons that HR can use to help convince managers that they need to embrace the back to work interview:
1. It helps the business meet its duty of care
All companies have a legal responsibility to protect the well-being of their employees at work. So it follows that when someone returns to work after time off sick, the business needs to establish for sure that they are fit to carry out their duties. It’s about welcoming the employee back, updating them on anything that’s happened in their absence and checking they really are ready to resume work (and haven’t come back too early, because they are worried about important work not getting done or concerned that taking time off sick may put their job at risk). A return-to-work interview gives the manager an opportunity to understand a bit more about the reasons behind their employee’s illness – and if appropriate to make any adjustments necessary to ensure a successful return.
2. It emphasises the manager takes absence seriously
For every employee with a genuine health issue, there is another one who, let’s be honest, is a bit of a malingerer. They are prone to Monday-morning-itis, take a duvet day at any opportunity and go down sick at the first sign of a sneeze. The business will always have to bear a certain amount of short-term absence, particularly in the winter months when bugs and viruses are doing the rounds and it really is better for employees who’ve succumbed to stay at home. But a policy of conducting return-to-work interviews after every absence, and making it clear to employees that this is standard practice, can help to nip unnecessary no-shows in the bud. If people know they will have to have a conversation with their manager when they come back to work, they are less likely to find any old excuse not to turn up.
3. It helps managers get to the root of what’s really happening
Sickness absence isn’t always what it seems to be. Often people will phone in sick when their childcare arrangements have broken down or they are struggling to cope with the challenges of looking after an elderly relative. Sometimes, an increasing amount of short-term absence can point to an employee being under stress, struggling to cope with their workload or experiencing difficult relationships within the team. A return-to-work interview gives the manager a valuable opportunity to dig sensitively beneath the surface and make sure that absence isn’t being used to cover up other issues. If the manager is aware of the root cause of the problem, they can take action to tackle it – whether that means offering more flexible working arrangements or sorting out a dispute between colleagues.
4. It provides valuable data
Return-to-work interviews give managers an opportunity to gather valuable data about absence trends and identify problem areas at an early stage. Ideally, managers should be capturing the information that comes out of their conversations and logging it onto their central HR system if they have one. This gives the business a helicopter view of absence rates overall – but also gives the manager a clear picture of what’s happening in their own department or team. If someone is taking an increasing amount of time off sick, for example, it might point to problems with workload or stress. If several people in the team are suffering with back problems, it might be that work stations need to be reassessed. If the manager has a clearer understanding of some of the issues behind absence, they will be better equipped to tackle them.
5. It demonstrates the manager is following appropriate procedures
Making it standard practice to conduct return-to-work interviews can be particularly helpful when it comes to a situation where absence has reached unacceptable levels. The manager needs to show that they have followed a consistent policy and have made it clear to the employee that persistent unexplained absence could lead to formal action and may put their job at risk. An automated HR system, which allows a record of all return-to-work discussions to be held in one central place, makes it easy for the business to show it has followed proper procedure should an employee decide to try and sue the company for unfair dismissal. Return-to-work interviews can also demonstrate that the business has acted fairly and done its utmost to support an employee with a long-term health issue. Information from the interviews will be valuable in informing decisions about retirement on ill-health grounds, for example, and will ensure the employee has access to the right kind of support and benefits once they leave the business.