Six ways to make sure return-to-work interviews after sickness happen

Carrying out return-to-work interviews after a sickness absence has many benefits. Not only do interviews give line managers a better idea of how to support employees returning, but the information gleaned during an interview can also be useful to the wider business.

Yet back-to-work interviews are not happening enough. Either because line managers might not see them as a priority or employees themselves are reluctant to have that conversation with their manager.

illustration of two people talking on a desk

So, what can you do to nudge people in the right direction and make sure that confident, productive return-to-work conversations actually take place?

1. Make it simple

People are much more likely to do something if you provide them with a process and make it simpler to gather the information that’s needed. If you don’t already have a back-to-work process in place or want to update your existing approach, work with key line managers to put it together. That way you are more likely to get their buy-in and uncover potential issues early on.

Make sure that whatever information you gather is recorded somewhere and managers can easily access appropriate guidance about what steps should be taken when and why (for example, to cover short- or long-term absences, or absences resulting from a workplace incident). An online HR system with HR portals or document management tools can help you with this by providing a central place to store documents, record and publish information.

2. Create a checklist

Quite often, managers don’t avoid back-to-work conversations on purpose. One-off tasks, like these interviews, can be easily forgotten due to their infrequent nature.

More sophisticated HR systems, like Cezanne HR, can trigger KPIs and send out reminders that help everyone stay on top of key activities. For example, with Cezanne HR’s Onboarding module (which can be used for so much more than just onboarding), you can create a return-to-work checklist and delegate tasks to different people, complete with automated reminders and deadlines. This makes tracking the progress of an employee’s transition back to work easy, and HR can chase up on certain tasks if needed.

By making return-to-work interviews part of a routine, everyone will eventually get on board.

3. Acknowledge staff concerns

Sometimes, managers have genuine concerns about talking to employees who have been off sick. They are often worried about straying into personal territory, upsetting the employee or being seen to insinuate that the absence may not be genuine. Or perhaps it’s because there is no formal absence management policy in place, so managers are not really sure what they should be doing and fear they could inadvertently put the business at risk of some kind of legal action from a disgruntled employee.

If you suspect that managers are avoiding return-to-work interviews, try to start an open and honest dialogue about why it’s not happening, so that you as the HR professional can provide support and reassurance where necessary.

4. Provide training

Don’t assume that managers will automatically know how to conduct a professional (and legal) return-to-work interview. Make sure they are clear about how your absence management policy works, what the different stages are, and when alerts or formal action will be triggered. Provide guidance on the format a typical conversation might take, the type of questions that are appropriate and those that are best avoided.

Managers should be aware of what support or signposting they can offer to employees, and of when it’s best for them to refer an issue to HR. Make yourself available to sit in on interviews that look like they may be tricky or to follow up on any recommendations that come out of the conversation.

5. Make it part of line managers’ goals

Push the kind of behaviours you want to encourage by making return-to-work interviews something managers are measured on. This calls for support from the very top of the organisation. Ensure that any goals are written and stored in a place that is easy to access and to refer back to.

If senior business leaders make it clear that pro-active absence management is something that is expected and valued, managers are more likely to make it a standard part of their practice.

6. Introduce benchmarking

There’s nothing like a bit of benchmarking to nudge people in the right direction. Consider publishing sickness absence figures on a departmental or team basis so that managers can see how they are stacking up against others.

If a manager can see that sickness in their team is way higher than in other parts of the business, it will encourage them to investigate further and get to the root of what’s really happening.

For more tips on managing sickness absence, make sure to check out ‘Managing sickness absence – getting the balance right’.

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