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Returning to work after sickness absence

Whether you’re returning to work after surgery or have an ongoing or long-term health condition, getting back to work can be a daunting prospect. You may feel worried and anxious about whether you’ll be well enough to do your job. Or you might worry what your employer might say or think.

To help you get back on your feet and back into your work routine, there are three key people who can help you. These are your doctor, your employer and, most importantly, you.


  • Your doctor Your doctor

    Your communication with your employer and HR department is really important when you’re off work because of a health problem. In addition, your doctor can help you communicate how fit you are for work to your employer and suggest some ways they can help you. This is done through a ‘fit note’. It’s a note from your doctor that offers your employer advice and recommendations about how your health may affect your abilities at work.

    You and your doctor will talk through sections of the note, looking at possible changes your employer could make that would benefit you. These may include the following.

    • Coming back to work gradually. This means a phased approach to increasing your work tasks and amount of hours you work.
    • Altering the times you work. This could be the amount of hours you work or the times of day you work.
    • Changing the tasks you do at work. It may be necessary to change some of your duties, either temporarily or permanently.

    Ask your doctor to be clear on the note about what the effects of your health condition are, rather than just describing it. There’s a comments box where your doctor can write down some practical suggestions. They might include things about your mobility or whether you need to attend any medical appointments during work hours.

    Remember, your doctor will be able to give guidance and general advice rather than specific solutions. It’s up to you and your employer to discuss this and agree a plan.

    If you’re not sure about your health condition, our questions to ask your doctor might help.

  • Your employer Your employer

    It’s good to stay in touch with your employer while you’re off so that you’re ready to return when the time comes. He or she is very likely to want to help you in every way they can to support your return. Remember, they value your skills and recognise that work is an important part of your wellbeing. Discuss your doctor’s advice from the fit note with them. Where they can, your employer will try to adapt your work based on your doctor’s advice to reach a plan that you’re happy with.

    There may be various changes your employer could make that would help you such as:

    • changing location or equipment
    • receiving some training or support
    • working from home
    • setting you up with a mentor or a buddy
    • working by yourself or in a team

    Involving an occupational health specialist might be an option. Your doctor may recommend this or your employer may already want to contact them for advice. This might happen if your situation is more complicated. Occupational Health professionals can offer expert and impartial advice to help assist in your return to work.

    Putting a plan into writing is a great way to set clear expectations for both you and your employer. The plan may include an end goal or multiple goals, time frames and review dates. He or she may need to carry out a risk assessment. This is to simply make sure your work is in line with the recommendation in your fit note.

    If your employer has some queries or questions, try to answer them as best you can. Remember, they have a responsibility to look after you at work and so must understand your needs and how they can accommodate them.

  • You You

    And now to the most important part. You. Re-entering the work place after time off can be nerve wracking. But taking charge of your situation and being proactive can really help ease any worries.

    Keep in touch. While you’re off work, keep in contact with your employer, and some of your colleagues if you want to. Your employer will be proactive in being in contact with you too. This isn’t to pressure you into coming back to work before you’re ready, but to support and help you. Regular contact can help you to feel ‘in the loop’ and ease any anxiety you might have when you do go back to work.

    Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. You may not be able to go straight back to doing what you did before you were ill. Don’t be hard on yourself. People understand that it isn’t going to be easy. Take things steady and recognise what you’re achieving and focus on the positives.

    You can go back to work any time you feel ready. The advice from your doctor is just that: advice. You can go back to work at any point that you feel well enough to do so. The earlier you feel up to it, the better.

    If you don’t feel supported or things aren’t going to plan, don’t stay silent about it. There are organisations that can offer advice such as your trade union, Citizen’s Advice Bureau and occupational health services. See our Resources for details.

  • Help your team stay healthy

    With a selection of health and wellbeing solutions to suit a variety of needs and budgets, our business cover is designed with your people in mind.

  • How work benefits your life How work benefits your life

    • Work is a key part of daily life. It’s important to your sense of identity, social relationships and status, meeting a variety of your emotional needs.
    • Having long amounts of time off increases your risk of poor general health and mental wellbeing.
    • The sooner you get back to work, the better you’re likely to feel.
    • Work can be seen as part of your therapy and rehabilitation.
    • It’s a myth that you need to be a 100 percent fit to go to work. In fact, work can help speed up your recovery and do wonders for your wellbeing.
  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Advising patients about work: an evidence-based approach for General Practitioners and other healthcare professionals. GOV.UK., published 2007
    • The fit note: a guide for patients and employees. GOV.UK., published March 2013
    • Getting the most out of the fit note: guidance for employers and line managers. GOV.UK., published March 2013
    • Element 5: agreeing and reviewing a return to work plan. Health and Safety Executive., accessed 2 February 2014
    • Keeping in contact. Health and Safety Executive., accessed 7 February 2014
    • Getting the most out of the fit note: GP guidance. GOV.UK., published January 2014
    • Working together to prevent sickness absence becoming job loss. Health and Safety Executive., published 2004
    • Statement of fitness for work – a guide for occupational health professionals. GOV.UK., published March 2010
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    Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, February 2014.

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