As winter sets in, many work places can seem inundated with colds, flus and bugs that lead to an increase in sickness absence. While it is often thought that Blue Monday (the third Monday of January) and National Sickie Day (the first Monday of February) are the worst days of the year for unplanned absences from work, a recent study showed that November is in fact the worst month overall for sickness absence.
While most sickness absence will hopefully be short-lived and have little lasting impact on an employee, research supported by the government backed scheme, Fit For Work, shows that carrying out return to work interviews is one of the best ways of managing and reducing sickness absence and of discouraging illegitimate sick leave.
When an employee comes back to work from sickness absence, a return to work interview can help to:
- welcome the employee back and check they are well enough to work
- update the employee about any changes that have taken place during their absence
- see if they need any support
- identify any workplace adjustments that may be needed
- develop, or discuss, the details of an agreed return to work plan
- consider a referral to a medical service, such as occupational health
- confirm that the employee’s absence record is correct
- allow you to discuss with the employee any other issues that you may be able to help them with.
A return to work meeting is particularly helpful when an employee is returning from a long-term absence.
Where an employee has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to do normal daily activities, then that impairment will usually be classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
The Equality Act places a duty on employers to make reasonable
adjustments if an employee is placed at a substantial disadvantage by a policy or practice of the employer and that disadvantage is because of the employee’s disability compared to people who do not have that disability. A return to work interview can be particularly effective in identifying adjustments that are necessary and proportionate and in identifying what support an employee would benefit from. This might lead to adjustments to an employee’s duties, work equipment, working hours or alternative measures being put in place, such as a phased return to work.
What adjustments are reasonable will depend on:
- the particular disability
- how practicable the changes are
- if the changes would overcome the disadvantage the employee experiences
- the size of the organisation
- how much money and resources are available
- the cost of making the changes
- if any changes have already been made.
It’s important that employers consider what adjustments can reasonably be made. Where an employer fails to make reasonable adjustments, then the employee may be entitled to bring a claim for disability discrimination.
However, the law acknowledges that we don’t live in a perfect world and not all adjustments may be possible, and so in many cases there is a balancing exercise to be undertaken. A well-conducted return to work meeting can help identify any problems before they escalate and creates an opportunity for employer and employee to agree on a plan that suits them both.
Conducting a return to work interview
The difficulty is that quite often return to work interviews are perceived negatively by employees, who can feel they are invasive, accusatory and bureaucratic if they are not handled sensitively.
A well-conducted return to work meeting will be one which:
- focuses on carefully listening to the employee
- takes the employee’s concerns on board
- is objective and non-judgemental, and
- asks open-ended questions.
The benefits of a return to work interview are unlikely to come to light unless those undertaking them have the right attitude and understand the importance of the role they play. It’s therefore a good idea for employers to consider providing additional training for line managers on how to conduct these meetings and on the organisation’s absence policy and relevant equality laws.