Helping Staff Return

Maintaining contact and a flexible approach are key factors in getting staff back to work. Hopefully you have maintained contact during their period off work and they have already started the process of rehabilitation back to full fitness, in which case coming back to work is just the next stage.

Too often employers get stuck in the traditional, and out-dated approach of waiting until the employee is pain free before return to work is considered.

Key factors in getting staff back to work early are:

  • Using phased returns
  • Grading exposure
  • Agreement between employee and employer
  • Risk assessment
  • Return to work interviews
  • Access to work

Using phased returns

The use of phased returns to work is becoming gradually more widespread. There are two aspects to a phased return - the working hours, and the work activities. Both can be phased. Phasing is allowing time for the employee to get back to normal hours and normal activity.

The time that this takes will be different for different people. It is better to have someone back at work on reduced hours performing modified duties than to have them off sick where barriers develop.

Grading exposure

In this context graded exposure means a gradual return to full activity. It is a concept that complements a phased return. As the employee is getting better they should do what they can and gradually, over time, increase their exposure to more demanding activities. Think about rehabilitation to work in the same way as people rehabilitate to sport – an injured footballer goes through a gradual progression of running, sprinting, turning, non-competitive activity etc before returning to full function.

Agreement between employee and employer

Return to work is, in many ways an agreement between employer and employee. If all the factors covered on these pages have been addressed than there is likely to be trust on the part of the employee. If they have not, then the situation may be difficult to resolve. An employee needs to be confident that a return to work fits in with their overall rehabilitation. This is more likely to happen if there are consistent messages from all the various parties involved in the rehabilitation. This is an important objective of this website.

Risk assessment

Linked to an agreement between the employee and employer is the risk assessment. Employers have a statutory duty to protect the staff from risks associated with the workplace. The risk assessment provides a tool for this to be achieved.

A return to work risk assessment should identify and rate all the foreseeable risks to the individual employee, other employees and members of the public. It should also specify the control measures that have been agreed for each identified risk.

It is important when assessing the various risks not to overlook the risk to the individual employee of remaining off work for longer than is necessary. It is well documented that the longer someone is off sick, the harder it becomes for them to make a successful return to work. Return to work is often beneficial to recovery whereas prolonged absence can be a significant risk to recovery.

This assessment must be made within the overall context of safety. For example, it might be in an individual's best interest to operate some machinery although they have back pain, but it might be assessed that this imposes bigger risks on the rest of the workforce. As with all risk assessments, a balanced decision making approach is required

Return to work interviews

A return to work interview gives the employer the chance to welcome the employee back, agree the duties and hours and go over the risk assessment. It is important to actively listen to what the employee is saying and to be as objective as possible. Offer the employee the chance to have a friend, colleague or union representative with them, but explain that it is an informal meeting. If you make return to work interviews standard practice for all episodes of sickness absence, whatever the reason, there will be less anxiety for staff attending them.

Access to work

Sometimes it is the employees access to and from work that is the limiting factor. If this is the case consider some of the alternatives:

  • Assistance with transport eg taxi, lift share
  • Altered hours to avoid peak travel times
  • Alternative work location
  • Working from home - if you choose this make sure that there is sufficient support and contact as home working can lead to isolation.

It might seem expensive to do this but always balance the cost of doing something against the risk of long term absence.

Useful Links