How to conduct a Return to Work interview

The return to work interview has been proven to be the single most effective tool for managing short-term absence. That is not to say that Return to Work interviews aren’t important when dealing with long-term absence – on the contrary, when a long term absentee returns to work, it is also very important that the line manager introduces the employee back to work and understands what they’re current medical condition is. However, managing long-term absence should begin a lot before the return to work and proactive steps should be taken to help the employee recover and return to work as soon as possible.

There are a number of resources to help managers intervene in long-term cases such as Employee Assistance programmes, Occupational Health, physiotherapy, counselling etc. When it comes to short-term absence, though, the same support services aren’t appropriate due to the cost or the reason for the absence. Here’s where Return to Work interviews come in.

The Return to Work interview has proved an effective way of tackling short-term absence. Return to Work interviews should be conducted after every absence, equally and consistently. You should treat all employees the same to protect yourself from claims of unfair treatment. The interview should be used to help discover underlying reasons for recurring absence, to challenge employees who may be ‘pulling sickies’ and to ensure repeat absentees don’t go unnoticed.

What points should be covered in a Return to Work interview?

  • Check that the employee is fit to return to work

It is important that the employee is healthy enough to do their job and it is your duty of care to make sure they can safely return to their role. For example, you should make sure you are aware of any medication the employee is still taking in case it has an impact on their work and you shouldn’t allow employees who could still be infectious to return to the workplace.

  • Ask the employee to explain the reason for their absence

You should ask the employee to confirm the reason for their absence even if you already think you know what it was. There is a chance that the cause has changed since the beginning of the absence, for example as a result of a GP appointment and proper diagnosis. It is also a good way to deter those employees whose absence was not genuine as most people will find it uncomfortable to have to discuss a fictitious reason for absence. However, it is better not to accuse the employees of lying unless you have good evidence to back your claim, you should instead use absence trigger points to manage problem absenteeism in a non-confrontational way.

  • Explain what impact the absence had at the workplace

Don’t lay the guilt on your staff members but remind them that their contribution at the workplace is important and that it is missed when they are not present. Some employees feel undervalued and unappreciated and may feel that their absence will go unnoticed because of that. The Return to Work interview is a good place to remind the employee that they are a valued member of the team.

  • Give an update on what has happened whilst the employee was away

Especially for long-term absentees, it is important that a proper update is provided when they return to work. For employees who have only been absent a few days, it’s sufficient to update them on any projects they are directly involved in or changes and updates that will affect their work directly.

  • Review the employee’s level of absence and comment on whether this is acceptable or not

It is important to comment upon the level of absence even where this is not unacceptably high. That way all employees are reminded how much absence they have had and that their attendance is being monitored. If the level of absence is higher than you find acceptable or above the company trigger points, you may need to discuss a plan of action for improving the attendance and maybe schedule a more formal absence review meeting. Make sure the employees are clear on what your policy is, what are acceptable levels of absence and what action may follow if they exceed the acceptable levels.

  • Discuss ways to prevent  future absence or improve attendance where absence levels are unacceptably high

It’s good to ask the employees themselves to consider how they could reduce their absence from work. You can explain that you sympathise with their situation and feel sorry that they have been poorly but from an employer’s perspective, you need that employee at work and productive. It should be your joint goal to achieve and the employee should be asked to make some suggestions for how they intend to improve their attendance, e.g. by starting to eat healthier or exercise more, by following a physiotherapist’s instructions to improve back problems, by arranging a back-up plan for childcare etc. Don’t forget to be supportive. It is important that any opportunity for the employer to help the employee improve their attendance is discussed and, where possible, you demonstrate a willingness to assist the employee to achieve better health and lower absence levels. 

Why is the Return to Work interview so effective?

  1. They provide a forum for addressing any relevant issues that may be causing the employee’s  absences
  2. They help pinpoint any underlying pattern of absence or cause of absence
  3. They make sure managers understand why employees  are absent
  4. They indicate to employees that their absence was noticed and that they were missed.
  5. They demonstrate to employees that absence is a high priority for the employer and that stated policies are being put into practice.