Helping employees return to work after an illness

06 April 2018

If an employee has been away on sickness absence for some time, they may feel daunted about returning to work. With your support, though, coming back could be a positive experience for them. It may even be an important part of their recovery.1, 2

Be guided by ‘fit notes’

Your employee may pass on a ‘fit note’ from their GP or doctor. This will tell you how their health could affect the way they perform at work.3 It may include advice about changes you could make to facilitate their return to work.4 These changes could include the following.5

  • Coming back to work gradually – having a phased approach to increasing their work tasks, and the amount of hours they work.
  • Altering working hours – the amount of hours or the times of day.
  • Changing the tasks they do at work – either temporarily or permanently.

Once you have the fit note, it’s up to you and the employee to talk about specific changes needed in their individual circumstances.

Agreeing a return-to-work plan

While the employee is still away, it’s really helpful to agree a ‘return to work’ plan with them.6This might include a suggested date for their return, and any changes that you might need to make to their workplace or role.7

Discuss the doctor’s advice from the fit note with your employee. Where you can, try to adapt their work based on the doctor’s advice.8 Some helpful changes could include:9

  • making physical adaptations to the workplace
  • offering extra training or a refresher course
  • allowing the person to work from home, or have teleconferences instead of meetings
  • setting the person up with a mentor or buddy
  • changing the range of tasks they do
  • looking at risk assessments, including taking the person’s mobility into account

You and your employee might find it helpful to seek advice from an occupational health specialist in planning their return to work.10 A specialist in this field could also tell you more about the law regarding ‘reasonable adjustments’. The law says that, in some cases, employers may need to make certain changes so that employees aren’t at a disadvantage to other workers. You can find out more about this on the Gov.uk website.11

Helping your employee feel at ease

While the person is still away (if possible at the start of the absence), ask them how they’d like you to keep in touch. For example, some people prefer a text message before a phone call so they know to expect you. Some people find regular contact can help them to feel ‘in the loop’, and make it easier to fit in when they do go back to work.12

It’s often a good idea for employees to call into work (by arrangement) nearer their return time. This can allow them to meet and greet people, see their work area and agree the details of the work they’ll be doing. Remember that they may prefer not to tell their colleagues what the problem has been.

Once your employee is back at work, remember to keep checking in with them. Remind them that you’re happy to discuss and work through any problems they’re facing. It’s also worth ensuring they know about any support services that are available at your workplace – for example, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) if you have one.

References

1. Is work good for your health and wellbeing? Department for Work and Pensions, 2006. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/is-work-good-for-your-health-and-well-being
2. Is work good for your mental health? Royal College of Psychiatrists. http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/usefulresources/workandmentalhealth/worker/isworkgoodforyou.aspx, accessed March 2018
3. Getting the most out of the fit note: GP guidance. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/fit-note-guidance-for-gps, last updated December 2016
4. Getting the most out of the fit note: GP guidance. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/fit-note-guidance-for-gps, last updated December 2016
5. The fit note: a guide for patients and employees. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-fit-note-a-guide-for-patients-and-employees, last updated December 2016
6. Fit for Work: Guidance for employers. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/458952/gp-fit-for-work-employers.pdf, published December 2014
7. Fit for Work: Guidance for employers. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/458952/gp-fit-for-work-employers.pdf, published December 2014
8. Working together to prevent sickness absence becoming job loss. Health and Safety Executive. http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/web02.pdf, accessed March 2018
9. Working together to prevent sickness absence becoming job loss. Health and Safety Executive. http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/web02.pdf, accessed March 2018
10. The role of occupational health. Fit for Work. http://fitforwork.org/employee/staying-in-work/the-role-of-occupational-health/, accessed March 2018
11. Reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities or health conditions. https://www.gov.uk/reasonable-adjustments-for-disabled-workers, accessed March 2018
12. Understanding your return to work plan. Fit for Work. http://fitforwork.org/employee/returning-to-work/your-return-to-work/understanding-your-return-to-work-plan/, accessed March 2018

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Supporting your employee returning to work after an illness
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