Employers should be constantly aware of the following elements of a fair procedure for managing sickness absence and employees’ return to work:-

  • Record sickness absence 

Can you easily identify which of your employees are off sick and why? 

Knowing who among their employees is off sick and why will help to: 

  •  Identify patterns and high level causes of short/long-term sickness absence; 

  • Identify work-related/other causes; 

  • Plan cover for absent employees; 

  • Benchmark the organisation’s performance. 

Recording sickness absence daily and summing it up on a weekly basis will help keep records accurate and prompt the business to make contact with absent employees at suitable intervals. 

  • Keep in contact 

Keeping in contact is a key factor in helping employees to return to work after sickness absence; although such contact can be a sensitive topic. Some employees may feel they are being pressed to come back to work too early. Without any contact, those who are absent may feel increasingly out of touch and undervalued. 

Line Managers should keep in regular contact with any of their staff who are absent. Make sure any conversations with the absent employee are clearly focused on their health and well-being and their return to work. Try to focus as much on what the employee can do as well as things they may need help with. 

If the absence is expected to last less than seven days further contact is not really necessary. However a Return To Work Interview will be useful to get people up to speed and to discuss any underlying issues if this sort of absence happens often. 

For more traumatic injuries or sudden illness, it is always advisable to extend your sympathies and use discretion until more information is known. 

If you are notified that an employee is suffering from a stress-related illness it is advisable to try and make contact within a week, it is, however, unlikely the employee will be ready to discuss returning at this stage. Use discretion until the longer-term prognosis is known. 

A Return To Work Interview gives you the chance to welcome your employee back to work, confirm that their record of absence is correct, and enables them to raise any remaining health or other issues that need addressing with your support. The main thing is to listen well and be objective. 

Such an interview can also be a good opportunity to offer help to an employee if you feel they are unwell or behaving differently because of pressure of some kind. If they become distressed, stay focused, give them time to recover and reassure them that you are listening and want to help. 

  • Planning and undertaking workplace adjustments 

The purpose of workplace adjustments is to: 

  • return your employee to their job with any modifications needed, or to an alternative job if no adjustments are possible; 
  • retain valuable skills; 
  • remove any obstacles to return to work. 

If your employee is or becomes disabled you are legally required under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to make reasonable adjustments to enable the employee to continue working. 

Workplace Adjustments need not be difficult. You will often find solutions working with your employee. At other times you may need to seek professional advice. 

Always do the following : 

  • Consider the needs of your employee and what they can do; 
  • Assess the possible obstacles to your employee’s return; 
  • Consider the adjustments needed to overcome these obstacles; 
  • Review health and safety risk assessments in the light of the proposed adjustments; 
  • Review how well the adjustments work; 
  • Seek professional advice, where necessary, to help you make informed decisions. 

In many cases a phased or gradual return to normal working hours within a fixed timescale is a key element in getting employees back to work.

There will be other occasions when there is no workplace adjustment that will enable an employee to return to their original job. The key issues regarding alternative work include: 

  • checking the alternative is suitable; 
  • what the impact will be on the employee’s contractual terms and conditions; 
  • what training or support will be needed; 
  • what the employee will do while alternatives are explored. 

Health and safety law requires that you undertake risk assessments of your activities to prevent people being harmed. You will need to review and possibly amend risk assessments if there has been a significant change in your employee through injury, ill health or disability that makes them vulnerable to additional risks, or you are introducing workplace adjustments that could affect the work and health of others. 

  • Using professional or other advice and treatment advice 

There will be some circumstances where you and your employee may need professional advice or access to support and treatment before a return to work is possible. For example, Occupational Therapists will be able to assist you with return to work programmes or workplace adaptations. 

Check with your insurer to see if your Employers Liability Compulsory Insurance includes rehabilitation services as part of your policy. 

Payments, private medical and income protection insurance may be taxable to the employee. Services for work related ill health and general welfare counseling are normally exempt from tax. 

  • Agreeing and reviewing a return to work plan 

You should, in conjunction with the employee, prepare a return to work plan. Usually the best time to prepare a plan is 3 to 4 weeks into an absence. 

The plan should be tailored to the individual and might include: 

  • the goal of the plan; 
  • the time period of the plan; 
  • Information about alternative working arrangements 
  • information about changes to terms and conditions 
  • what checks will be made to make sure the plan is put into practice 
  • dates when the plan will be reviewed 

Empowering an individual to influence their return to work can significantly boost their well-being and confidence. 

  • Co-ordinating the return to work process

If you have to get help from a number of advisers it may be useful to appoint a coordinator to ensure information is available on time, arrangements are smooth and everybody knows what is expected from them. 

It is important that the co-ordinator is familiar with the employee’s job and work environment, able to communicate and negotiate with staff at all levels and be sensitive to the needs of the employee concerned. 

A more formal approach to co-ordination, known as case management, may be needed in complicated cases or when input is needed from a wide variety of sources. A case manager is typically someone who is professionally qualified in a relevant medical area and may be involved in treating the employee.