Return to work meeting and plan

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When carried out effectively, return to work meetings are proven to be the single most effective measure for reducing short-term sickness absence.

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All you need to know in 30 seconds

Return to work meetings are proven to be the best measure for reducing short term absences and recording these absences correctly. They let the employee know that they were missed, their work is appreciated and that you want to know how they are. They also give you the opportunity to identify and discuss any potential problems with your employee and arrange for extra support where it is needed.

A meeting should be carried out after every case of absence, even just one day - as this could mask a health concern which might go unnoticed. They should always be carried out fairly, consistently and in a supportive way, whilst being informal and brief. Your HR department is very likely to have a template for these meetings. Make sure correct records are taken, as frequent short absences can highlight issues such as mental health and stress. By ensuring the absence duration, ESR codes and further support needs are recorded you can identify trends and target interventions.

As a line manager, there are things you need to consider depending on the individual's reason for absence. For instance, if the absence was related to an infection control issue, have they have been away from the workplace for a sufficient period of time to prevent spread of infection? Do you need to signpost your employee to getting further support for a mental health issue, or to rapid access to treatment in the case of a musculoskeletal issue? Have you considered the need to undertake any risk assessments prior to the employee resuming full duties?

Where appropriate, you should work with the employee and HR / OH departments to agree a return to work plan once a decision has been made about assistance the employee needs to come back to work. This could involve a phased return or a therapeutic return, or perhaps a combination of the two.

All you need to know in detail

When carried out effectively, return to work meetings are proven to be the single most effective measure for reducing short-term sickness absence. They indicate to employees that their absence was noticed and that they were missed, and that the employer wants to take the time to find out how they are. They also serve to indicate that managing sickness absence is a priority for the employer. Below we highlight some key aspects to consider when conducting a return to work meeting.

The return to work meeting is an opportunity to confirm the reason for an employee's absence and gives you the opportunity to discuss with your employee how they are, and if there is anything you can do to support them in the workplace. Reassure the employee that they were missed, and that you and the team are glad they have returned.

A return to work meeting should be carried out after every instance of sickness absence – even one day. Shorter frequent absences could mask a health concern which may go unnoticed if return to work meetings are not conducted.

To be effective, return to work meetings should be carried out in a fair and consistent way, and approached in a supportive way. They will usually be informal and brief.

You should follow your organisation’s policy around conducting the return-to-work meeting but see below for some general principles you can follow.

  • welcome the employee back to work and ask how they are
  • clarify the reason for the absence
  • confirm that the employee is fit to return to work and has taken appropriate leave where infectious illnesses have been the cause of an absence
  • consider any changes or adjustments which should be made to accommodate the employee in their return to work
  • consider the appropriateness of a referral to occupational health
  • discuss this episode of sickness in the broader context of other absence, and what the procedure is and when this may be applied
  • consider whether there are any patterns of absence occurring e.g. absences always falling on the same day of the week, prior to a bank holiday etc.
  • engage in a wider conversation about the employee’s health and wellbeing
  • discuss the value of the employee in terms of the team and the impact sickness absence has on the ability to deliver high quality consistent patient care
  • update the employee on any changes that have occurred while they have been away

Organisations usually provide managers with a template to use for the return to work meeting as a guide and to promote consistency, including questions to ask and as a template to record the discussion and any agreed actions. Contact your HR department for this.

In addition, when conducting a return to work meeting, you may also want to consider the following points.

  • ensure the absence has been recorded and reported accurately
  • ensure the self-certificate or ‘Fit Note’ has been provided, if necessary
  • take the opportunity to clarify and/or update reporting procedures and re-circulate these
  • where the absence is related to an infection control issue, consider whether the employee has been away from the workplace for a sufficient period of time to prevent spread of infection? Is further clarification required from occupational health?
  • ensure you have considered the need to undertake any risk assessments prior to the employee resuming full duties
  • if the absence was as a result of an slip/trip or fall, has this been reported through any relevant incident reporting system
  • if the absence is related to a musculo-skeletal issue, make the employee aware of any rapid access to treatment options or recommended that they seek OH advice or support
  • if the absence is related to mental health issues, consider whether the employee is getting appropriate support, and/or have you discussed a referral to OH
  • will your employee require a change to their duties upon their return?

A record of the meeting should be kept, which should be agreed with the employee and signed off by both parties as a fair record of what was discussed.
When a line manager, in collaboration with the employee, HR and OH, has identified all of the ways in which the employee can be assisted back into the workplace they need to agree a return to work plan.

The stage at which this plan should be formulated will vary depending on the circumstances of the individual and should be based on the expected date of return reflecting any medical and safety advice that has been received. It is helpful to start discussions about a return to work as soon as possible, usually before your member of staff returns to work. However, this will depend upon the nature of the illness and the ease of making the arrangements necessary to facilitate the return to the workplace. Early discussions about a return to work reinforce the fact that you do want your employee to return and make sure that this is part of the overall planning process.

A return to work plan might include:

  • the expected date of return 
  • details of any steps that need to be taken prior to the employee returning, e.g. risk assessment, ordering equipment, change or transfer of duties etc.
  • details of any therapeutic return plan e.g. agreed times that the employee will pop into work to have a coffee with colleagues, attend a team meeting etc.
  • the agreed detail of any phased return including the duration of this and expectations of what they will be able to do when this has been completed, e.g. return to their substantive role fully recovered
  • the period of time covered by the plan
  • when the plan will be reviewed and by who
  • will the plan have any effect on the terms and conditions of the employee and is there any change to their pay
  • who has been involved in drawing up the plan
  • details of reasonable adjustments and when they should be reviewed.

It is important for all parties to keep the plan under review to ensure that it delivers what is intended and to allow for agreed changes to be made if it is found to be unsuccessful in any way. Lessons learned from implementing return to work plans should be shared with other managers, OH and HR in order to learn from them and improve the process for other employees in the future.