Research has shown that back-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 and that they 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. For example, to allow flexible working, a phased return to work, or alter the employee’s work environment to accommodate, for example, a change in mobility.
2. It emphasises that managers are taking 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 helps integrate staff back into the company
It makes sense to ensure that employees returning after long-term sickness are brought up-to-speed quickly, and re-integrated back into the organisation as smoothly as possible. It’s about welcoming the employee back, updating them on anything that’s happened in their absence and checking they feel part of the community.
Our survey of 250 UK HR professionals showed that businesses could be doing more to re-board employees: as many as a third of employers are not tailoring their onboarding processes to returning staff, focusing their efforts on new starters instead. However, with talent in short supply and recruitment costs soaring, it makes sound financial sense to ensure longer-serving staff don’t feel their previous hard work has being overlooked as a result of a temporary absence. Back to work interviews, alongside engaging welcome back online portals, are simple but effective ways of ensuring returning staff feel appreciated, and will go a long way to retaining key talent.
Are back to work interviews a legal requirement?
Although there is an overall agreement that back-to-work interviews are beneficial for an organisation, there is no legal requirement for an employer to conduct them. That being said, making it standard practice to hold interviews can be particularly helpful when it comes to a situation where absence has reached unacceptable levels, and can be invaluable if a legal dispute with an employee arises.
The key, however, is to make sure conversations take place and the outcomes (and the associated sickness absenses) are properly recorded. Online HR systems like Cezanne HR, make it easy to record sickness; can be set up to remind line managers to schedule the meetings; and provide a central, secure place to record the result of back-to- work or disciplinary conversations. This makes it easier for the business to show it has followed proper procedure should an employee decide to try and sue the company for unfair dismissal. Keeping a record of 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.
Soft skills: the key to successful back-to-work interviews?
Employees shouldn’t feel judged or interrogated during interviews. The questions posed should be professional and sensitive rather than invasive, so it’s vital line managers are equipped with the relevant people skills to conduct interviews effectively. In fact, there’s been a recent push for practitioners to promote soft skills training to reflect the changing needs of the job market (the rise of robots may take some of the automation orientated jobs, but human skills will always be in demand). HR and L&D practitioners can make sure that training budgets are being spent on soft skills as well as hard, specialist skills, ensuring that managers’ approach to interviews are empathetic and considered.