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Last Updated on July 16, 2020

If one of your employees or staff members has been off of work for a long period of time, using an established ‘Return to Work’ plan can be extremely useful.

These staff might have been off long-term for a variety of reasons and these can include because of maternity or paternity leave, due to illness, an accident, or for another reason.

Managing long absence employees

Having a proper system in place for staff who are returning to work after a long absence, can be good for a business in a number of ways including because it can help:

  • the employee feel valued and thus reduce future absences
  • you meet legal obligations such as requirements under the Equality Act
  • with doing the morally correct thing in terms of taking care of and correctly managing your employees.

So what is the best strategy for managing a staff member returning to work after an absence?

The first thing to do is to have a return to work interview. There are 6 steps that I recommend you take during the interview and these are shown and explained below!

Using the 6 Steps for Return to Work Interview after a Long Absence

1. Welcome the Employee Back to Work

Start by welcoming the employee back to work and then do a return to work interview with them at the earliest possible opportunity. To start the interview, welcome the employee back to work again.

The tone of the interview as a whole needs to be positive. Also, use the interview to give the employee a chance to explain the reasons for their absence.

You can use the interview yourself to assess if they are actually ready to be back to work, rather than being back just because they do not want to accrue any more days of absence.

2. Update The Employee

Next, bring the employee up to date with any changes or events that occurred during their absence.

This will help make them feel included.

3. Identify Adjustments

Find out if there are any adjustments (accommodations in the USA) that need to be made to make it easier for the employee to transition back to work.

4. Make a Transition Plan for the Employee

If adjustments are needed, the line manager should create a plan with the employee to set out how they will be transitioning back to work.

Transitions can, for example, include the employee doing easier tasks that will involve less pressure on them to start with. Likewise, if the employee is returning after an accident, you might want to give them lighter duties to start with.

5. Record Absence Dates

Make sure that the absence dates have been recorded and check with the employee that they agree on the dates, in case there are any disputes later.

6. Open for Questions

Let the employee ask you any questions they may have and/or express any concerns that have not been covered.

Return to Work Interview Tips

Hold the interview in private

This is important as you have to ensure confidentiality.

Similarly, make sure that any forms and documentation you prepare is kept confidential and stored safely, in line with data protection regulations.

Be objective

Do not let any personal feelings or biases interfere with the interview and try to not be judgmental.

The language you use is also very important. So, for example, if you notice that the employee is always absent on a Friday, do not say: ‘You are always off on Fridays. That’s very strange, don’t you think?’

A question like this will only put the employee on the defensive. Say instead something like: ‘It seems that your absences occur mainly on Fridays. Do you know why that is?’

Ask open-ended questions

The interview has to be a positive experience. Open questions, which do not require a ‘yes/no’ answer, will allow the employee to open up.

Listen and show interest

Show genuine interest and make the employee feel that they are being listened to and that you care.

Be empathetic

Show understanding and empathy for your employee. Make it clear that you wish to support them at work.

Some problems can be pretty worrying for people, so you want to make employees feel valued and supported at work and not add more burden to what they are already trying to cope with.

Tell the employee they were missed

This is important to make them feel valued.

Do not try to instil fear

The return to work interview should be a positive experience, not an interrogation where the employee feels that they have to defend themselves.

Keep a record of the meeting

This is important to spot any absence patterns, not so much for disciplinary procedures (although, unfortunately, that may be the case in some rare circumstances) but because sometimes absence patterns can reveal underlying problems or conditions that an employee may need support with.

Classroom lesson plans

Return to Work Example Questions to Ask Returning Employees and Staff

Here are some questions you might want to ask during the return to work interview.

How are you feeling?

This is the most important question, as you want to assess if the employee is fit to be back to work.

If their absence was not due to sickness, you may still want to ask how they feel being back to work or other open questions to assess their state of mind.

Fact-finding (e.g. ‘Did you see a doctor?’, ‘Have you been given any medications?’)

These are straightforward questions, particularly if the absence was due to sickness.

It can be helpful to know information such as if they saw a doctor; if they are taking any medications; and how these are affecting them (in case these have an impact on their job, meaning that adjustments to their workload or the nature of their work might be needed).

How are you finding your workload?

You can directly ask the returning employee so that you can find out if you need to lighten their workload temporarily.

How can we best support you?

To find out anything that might help them transition back into work.

Tell me about your work relationships with your colleagues.

This one (or another open question along these lines) could be a useful question if you suspect that their absence may be due to conflict or bullying/harassment they may be experiencing at work.

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Dr Paul Symonds

Paul is a trained researcher with a PhD in wayfinding. Paul is a co-founder of Symonds training. We focus on providing high-quality training materials packages and programs for trainers, classroom teachers and HR departments.

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