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Return to Work Interviews

Return to Work Interviews

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Managing employee absence can be an easier process if you have the correct procedures in place. One of the best methods is to use a return-to-work interview: a face-to-face meeting between an employee and their line manager, focusing on the employee’s recent absence.

Such interviews may cover:

  • The period of absence 
  • Developments while that employee was away
  • Adjustments to the employee's role, working hours, etc, upon return
  • A team or company catch-up

These interviews can be used for both short and long-term absences such as:

When an employee returns to work, their line manager will invite the employee to a meeting where they can sit down in private to have a face-to-face discussion. This doesn’t have to be overly formal – in fact, an informal discussion is often more effective.

The discussion and outcomes are usually formally recorded.

This article will explore when return-to-work interviews should be conducted, what should be covered, and questions that may be pertinent.

Return to Work Interviews
Return to Work Interviews

Why Return-to-Work Interviews Are a Good Idea

Return-to-work interviews are not a legal requirement but they are beneficial to both the company and the individual if they are performed correctly.

Knowing that any absence will require a conversation with a line manager should reduce malingering or not-so-serious absences. It will also allow employees taking a genuine leave of absence to discuss any problems and work with the company to make any necessary adjustments.

A thorough return-to-work interview will help to get an employee back up to speed quickly after a long absence, and will ensure they feel supported and valued.

When Should You Conduct a Return-to-Work Interview?

A return-to-work interview must be conducted as soon as the employee returns to work – usually the day they get back.

Getting the return-to-work interview completed before the employee begins working on the day they return will make sure that they are fit and ready to be back. They can get straight into their work.

Sometimes, it might be better to have a return-to-work interview before the employee is scheduled to start. Long-term absences (over four weeks) often need specific management and usually require some form of phased return, reduced hours or altered duties.

What Should Be Covered in a Return-to-Work Interview?

The most important thing to remember is that it should be a ‘welcome back’ to the employee. It is not meant to be an interrogation.

A return-to-work interview should cover the following:

1. Ensure That the Employee Is Fit to Return to Duties

This is the most important step and shows that the employer really cares about the employee’s health and wellbeing.

If the employee has been unwell, you might want to sensitively ask questions regarding the wider issues around the absence. While some instances might just be an unfortunate illness, you might be able to prevent further absences if you can get to the root cause of the problem.

Is your employee struggling with a problem at home, like an unwell or elderly relative, or an issue with childcare? Are they under stress because of a problem at work such as bullying?

Having a frank conversation about these issues enables you as an employer to understand the core issue and work with the employee to improve their situation.

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2. Bring the Employee up to Speed

The return-to-work interview is a good opportunity to make sure the employee is aware of any changes or news in the workplace. That might include crucial updates to projects they have been working on, new staff members or changes to policy.

This ensures that they don’t feel like they have missed something in their absence.

3. Check Their Absence Record

A return-to-work interview is also an opportunity to make sure the employee’s absence record is correct. Listing the dates, reason for absence and ensuring these are correct means that both the line manager and the company can be aware of any absence trends.

If the employee has hit a trigger point for too many absences, they may not be entitled to sick pay or may face further sanctions depending on company policy. Some businesses use the Bradford Factor to calculate the impact of repeat absences on the company; others have formal processes in place to manage their employees’ absences.

The return-to-work interview is the place where these can be brought to the employee’s attention.

4. Discuss Any Changes That Need to Be Made

When an employee returns to work, they may need reasonable adjustments to be made for them to be comfortable. This information might be contained within a fit note from a doctor or may be requested by the employee; in the interview, you can discuss what is needed.

After a long-term absence, it is likely that the employee will have negotiated a phased return or adjusted hours, as well as a change to duties. The meeting should be used as a starting point to discuss a strategy that works for both the company and the employee.

Questions to Ask at a Return-to-Work Interview

Some questions you will have to ask will be fact-finding. These include confirming the dates and reasons for the absence, if needed.

However, when it comes to getting to the root cause of the problem (if there is one), or gently probing about medical issues or changes in the workplace, it can be helpful to have an idea of how to phrase a question so that you don’t come across as intimidating.

A question like “How are you feeling?” is a simple way to show support of your employee, and will also let you know if they feel ready to back.

Try asking them if there is anything you can do to help them on a day-to-day basis, or if they need any adjustments.

Remember, being objective means that you need to remove any judgement from your questions. So, instead of asking, “Why are you always off on a Friday?”

Try asking:

It seems that your absences mainly occur on a Friday – do you know why that is?

Asking a question in a supportive manner might encourage the employee to mention that they have a childcare problem that day, or that is when their elderly relative needs to be taken to an appointment.

To make sure that there are no underlying issues in the workplace, ask open questions like,

How are you finding your workload?” or “Tell me about your working relationships with the other people in the team”.

These might help to uncover a cause that you need to take further action on.

Whenever you are asking questions, just focus on the idea that it is an informal conversation and the result is to prevent further absences. If you can ask gentle questions, be sensitive in your manner and empathise, you are more likely to get a full and frank discussion, and a positive result that benefits the company and the employee.

Remember, your employee should never feel obligated to reveal any sensitive medical details if they don't feel comfortable.

Return to Work Interviews
Return to Work Interviews

Tips for Conducting a Return-to-Work Interview

  • It’s not an interrogation. Although you may have to ask questions regarding some personal issues, you are not there to catch the employee out or get them into trouble. The questions asked should encourage an open and honest conversation about how the employee can be supported at work, and identify whether there are any underlying issues.
  • Listen and empathise. Asking open-ended questions and actively listening to the responses will help your employee feel supported and valued. Remember that some health problems can be worrying for an employee, especially if they are waiting for the results of tests, so empathise with them and see how you can support them at work.
  • Be open and honest. It's important to remember that this is a two-way dialogue; in any cases of continued absence, you can emphasise how important it is that you work together to prevent further absences. This might mean reduced hours, flexible working or a change of tasks – or it might mean that you must deal with an underlying workplace problem, like workload or bullying.
  • Record the conversation. Consider filling in a document or form while the return-to-work interview is being completed. The dates of absence, reasons and any medical advice sought should be included, but there also needs to be a record of any discussion and outcomes agreed. Take time to make sure these records are signed and dated, and properly recorded with HR or in the employee’s employment record.
  • Think about the necessity of ‘re-boarding’. If an employee has been absent for a longer period, they may need some extra help being reintegrated back into their role. This might include any missed training or company information, or they might need to get some refresher training. Allowing them time to catch up on emails, changes to staffing and policy will make sure that they are fully prepared to return to work.

Final Thoughts

A return-to-work interview should take place as soon as an employee comes back from an absence. It should be framed as an informal meeting with their line manager, where the conversation is recorded, signed and dated by both the employee and their manager.

A good return-to-work interview will support the employee in their return and will prevent malingering or unauthorised absence. Open questioning and a procedure that is supportive and inclusive will make the employee’s return to work comfortable and easy.