When an employee returns to work after sickness absence, it can be a challenging transition. Conducting a return to work interview can help the employee transition back into the workplace environment, as well as ensuring that they are being supported as effectively as possible. But what should this return to work interview include?
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about return to work interviews, as well as providing you with some return to work after sickness interview question examples. How you’ll conduct this interview will depend on the circumstances for the absence, meaning that it is crucial that you are fully prepared.
What is a return to work interview?
So, you’ve heard about return to work interviews, but what exactly are they?
A return to work interview is a meeting that is held between the employer (usually a HR representative and/or a line manager) along with the employee who is returning to work after sickness absence.
Many businesses have a standard return to work form that can be completed during the meeting, allowing a standard process to be followed. However, since return to work meetings are not a legal requirement, there is not a standard procedure that must be followed.
Why hold a return to work interview after sickness?
There are three primary reasons why return to work interviews are typically conducted. These are as follows:
- To ensure the employee is fit for their return to work
- To minimise absence levels within the organisation
- To address any concerns or underlying health conditions that may impact the return to work
One of the main reasons that employers choose to conduct return to work interviews is to minimise time off due to illness. Conducting return to work interviews demonstrates that the employer is serious about keep absence to a minimum, as well as providing the opportunity for adjustments to be made if required to reduce the chances of absence being required in the future.
Benefits to the employer of return to work interview
Conducting a return to work interview offers many benefits to the employer.
Firstly, employees are statistically less likely to take unnecessary sickness days if return to work interviews are routinely conducted on every occasion. They are also more likely to have a higher level of productivity upon their return as they feel they have been welcomed and supported in their return to work.
As an employer, conducting a return to work interview ensures that you are meeting your duty of care towards your employees. During the interview, you can explore whether any reasonable adjustments are required due to illness or disability, enabling you to support your staff more effectively.
Finally, ensuring that you hold a return to work interview after every period of illness-related absence will help you to track absence amongst employees. If there are common reasons for illness, these can then be explored and measures put in place to reduce absence rates. For example, if you notice that several employees have had time off as a result of back pain, you can take measures to ensure that the working environment is not contributing to this condition.
Benefits to employee of return to work interview
It isn’t just the employer that benefits from conducting a return to work interview: the employee also benefits from this process.
The return to work interview process is designed to help an employee to understand that their presence at work is appreciated and that the work they bring to the team is valuable. During this process, they should be brought up to date on any changes that have happened during their absence, helping them to feel like they are up to speed with their colleagues.
Another benefit of return to work interviews for employees is the opportunity to explain any concerns that they may have about their return to work. This could also include requesting any adjustments that they need to help them to perform their job role to their full ability.
Do you need a return to work policy?
Although the return to work interview process is not a legal requirement, it’s always best to have an internal policy that explains the process to both employees and line managers. By standardising the process, you can ensure that every employee is treated consistently after returning from a period of absence.
Some businesses choose to have a formal questionnaire that is filled in during the return to work process. This helps to ensure that every employee is asked the same questions and given the opportunity to request any adjustments required to perform their job role.
When to conduct a return to work interview
As the return to work interview is not a legal requirement, there are no set circumstances in which a return to work interview must be carried out. Although there are no official guidelines for when return to work interviews should and should not be conducted, it is best to create a process document that outlines the return to work procedure for your business.
You may decide to interview employees after their return from maternity or paternity leave, after a long period of sickness or following a single day off with a migraine. However you decide to operate your return to work process, the most important thing is to ensure that it is consistent across all employees.
Whatever you decide, it’s a good idea to set out this information in the employee handbook and to ensure that employees are made aware of this process during their induction. It’s also a good idea to provide training to managers on how to conduct a return to work interview, ensuring that the process is carried out consistently and fairly every time.
It’s also important to note that the return to work interview should be carried out as soon as possible after the return of the employee. This should ideally be within the first shift that the employee works. This is because the return to work interview is the best opportunity for the employee to confirm that they are well enough to have returned and for you as the employer to make any adjustments required to prevent future recurrences of the illness or injury.
Questions to ask at a return to work interview
There is no set list of questions that need to be asked at a return to work interview. However, there are many examples of good questions that will help you to understand how your employee is feeling and exactly what happened during their period of absence.
Examples of effective questions to ask during the return to work interview could include:
- How do you feel now?
- Do you feel well enough to be back at work?
- During your absence, did you see a GP or pharmacist?
- Are you taking any medication, and are there any side effects that we should know about?
- Is this a recurring or ongoing condition?
- Has anything related to work contributed to your absence?
- Can we make any adjustments to make it easier for you to attend work?
- Do you have any questions?
Return to work interview structure
Although there is no set structure for a return to work interview, the government recommends that businesses follow six steps during the interview:
- Update the employee
- Identify required adjustments
- Create a plan
- Record absence
Let’s take a look at these six steps in more detail.
Your return to work interview should always be positive. Beginning the interview by welcoming the employee back to work is the best way to set this tone. You can also use this as an opportunity to ask the employee about the reason for their absence and give them plenty of time to explain. This is also the time when you should check that they are definitely fit to be back at work and have not felt pressured to return before they are ready.
2. Update the employee
This is the time to update the returning employee on anything they’ve missed during their absence. This will help them to enhance their productivity whilst making them feel more included in the workplace environment.
3. Identify required adjustments
Next, ask the employee whether there are any adjustments that could be made to make the transition make to the workplace easier for your employee, or to prevent any recurrence of illness or injury. If the employee has been issued a fit note by their GP, you’ll need to discuss the details of the note and identify which duties can and cannot be performed.
4. Make a plan
You can then begin to make a plan with the employee about what their transition back to work will look like. This should take into account any adjustments which are required, for example shorter working hours or adjusted duties depending on the employee’s current capabilities.
5. Record absence
It’s always a good idea to discuss how the absence will be recorded with the employee, including the dates of the absence. They can confirm that the dates recorded are correct, preventing any disputes later down the line. If the returning employee is regularly absent, this is the time to warn them that continued lack of attendance may result in disciplinary action being taken.
You should always end the return to work interview by asking the employee if they have any questions or concerns about returning to work. If they raise concerns, take the time to listen to these and ask for more detail where required. This open and honest communication will give your employee the chance to express their feelings, without pressure or time constraints.
Tips for conducting a return to work interview
Conducting a return to work interview can feel daunting, especially if it’s the first time you’ve conducted one. Here are a few useful tips to help you along the way.
- Hold the return to work interview in a private room. This will help to ensure that the employee feels comfortable discussing their absence and demonstrates sensitivity.
- Try to remain objective and avoid bringing your personal feelings into the interview. Try to keep the tone neutral and be as supportive as possible, without judgement.
- Ask the returning employee open-ended questions, encouraging them to share information about their absence and their emotions when it comes to their return to work.
- Avoid putting any pressure on the employee. There is no legal obligation for them to reveal details of their absence should they choose to keep the information private.
- Use the same format for every return to work interview, ensuring fairness and consistency for all employees.
- Return to work interviews don’t need to be formal – a five minute informal chat in a quiet room is often sufficient. This can help the employee to feel at ease, making it easier for them to reveal information that may enable you to support their return to work.
- You should always make notes of the return to work interview and ensure they are signed by both yourself and the returning employee. This will help to avoid any disputes later down the line.
Is a return to work interview a legal requirement?
Conducting a return to work interview is not a legal requirement. This means that it is down to each individual business to decide whether to hold return to work interviews, and in what circumstances they are required. If you choose to conduct return to work interviews, you should have a clear policy set out for the process and refer to this in the employee handbook, so that employees know what to expect following a period of absence.
What does phase back to work mean?
After a long period of absence, a GP may state that an employee should return to work on a gradual basis, often referred to as a phased return to work. This means that the employee will return to their duties gradually, slowly increasing the amount of time they spend at work and the tasks they carry out over a defined period of time.
To sum up
Return to work interviews offer benefits for both employers and employees. Although they are not a legal requirement, it is highly recommended that employers conduct return to work interviews with employees returning from an extended period of absence.
A return to work interview doesn’t need to be formal – a casual chat is often far more effective than a formal interview and the employee is more likely to share sensitive information if they feel relaxed and listened to. However, it’s important to remember that you will be discussing confidential information, so it’s important to conduct the interview in a private space and store notes from the meeting securely.