Are RTW interviews needed for short absences?

You might think, as many do, that Return to Work (RTW) interviews are only necessary when an employee has been off work due to a serious illness or injury or for a long time. In fact, the opposite is true.

RTW interviews are the line managers’ main tool for effectively tackling transient – and often unnecessary – short term absence. As many will know from personal experience, the reason why employees go absent is not always the reason that they give for the absence. This does not mean that the absence is any less genuine – after all, they are away from the workplace and that is ultimately what matters. However, a talented line manager will use the RTW interview as an opportunity to uncover any underlying reasons and weed out the unnecessary spells of absence.

Deterrent for ‘pulling sickies’

First of all, consistently having a sincere chat with every returning absentee to discuss their health and to show care for their welfare will deter employees who might otherwise be tempted to “pull a sickie” i.e. to fake a sick day. Having to elaborate on a lie face-to-face with a line manager, who is actually concerned about your health is an uncomfortable feeling for most and not a task they will soon look to repeat.

If an employee is presenting a worrying absence pattern of frequent short term absences, the RTW interview also gives the opportunity to discuss this with the individual, even before a company trigger for formal action has necessarily been reached. This will remind employees that their absence is monitored and will not go unnoticed.
Discovering the real reason for absence

Secondly, the RTW interview offers an opportunity to uncover any underlying reasons for absence. Some individuals have a valid reason to need a day off rather than just a sudden case of ‘Mondayitis’ but for some reason they do not feel they able to share the real reason. In these cases it is even more important that the line manager spends a little time on the RTW interview. During the conversation in person, unexpected details may come to light that the employee was not able to disclose over the phone. Furthermore, showing genuine care and interest in the employee’s situation and conducting the interview privately can provide the necessary sense of confidentiality for the employee to open up.

Cases, where there’s a secondary reason for the absence, are all the more challenging because a manager will not know when an underlying home or health problem exists. Therefore, every RTW interview should be approached with the same attitude, keeping in mind that there could be more to the situation than first meets the eye.

Opportunity to intervene early

Early intervention is key to good attendance management. The sooner an issue is identified and acted upon, the better the chances of having a positive outcome. Proactive management is better than reactive management and, in the best-case scenario, a RTW interview will prevent the next absence from taking place!
For example, an employee might call in sick because of childcare issues, not knowing that the employer offers help with childcare. The manager might also be able to help with temporary changes in shift patterns when alternative childcare arrangements need to be made.

Another example could be developing symptoms of stress or anxiety at work that the employee is scared to mention. If the manager shows that he or she is supportive and can be confided in, this could go a long way in combating those symptoms. Being able to talk about such a concern out loud can bring real relief.