Supporting Employees Returning from a Period of Sick Leave

7 mins

A well-planned return-to-work program can not only support your employees' wellbeing but...

A well-planned return-to-work program can not only support your employees' wellbeing but also boost morale and productivity.

In this blog, we'll explore the key stages of supporting an employee's return to work, from communication during absence to well-managed reintegration. By following these steps, you can create a smooth transition that benefits both your employees and your business.

When an employee has been absent from work for a short or indeed in some circumstances a longer period of time, as an employer you have an obligation to ensure that they are fully supported back into the workplace, remembering also that it can be a difficult and daunting transition back to work for an employee. 

Remember, each role – whether it's the employer, colleagues, or the employee themselves – holds a crucial role in facilitating the return to work. However, what truly sets the stage for success is starting the support journey while the employee is away from work.


What are the important stages of supporting an employee back to work? 


Communication during absence 

Ensuring a smooth return to work after a long-term absence is crucial for both the employee and the organisation's success. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) stresses the importance of effectively managing this transition, with a key focus on maintaining open communication throughout the employee's absence. Those who manage sickness absence correctly see greater prospects of a successful return and/or reduced absence.

Whether it's through regular phone calls, meetings, or virtual team catch-ups, staying connected with the absent employee is paramount. This ongoing dialogue not only keeps them informed but also reaffirms their sense of belonging within the team. Feeling valued and supported during their absence can significantly impact their morale and motivation upon their return.

However, it's essential to strike a balance in communication to avoid overwhelming the employee or inducing feelings of guilt. Collaborating with the employee to establish clear expectations regarding the frequency and mode of communication ensures that both parties are on the same page. This approach fosters transparency and trust, laying the foundation for a successful reintegration into the workplace.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) survey highlights the importance of a welfare meeting, either whilst the employee is out of the business or indeed as they return to the organisation. Of those employees who were out of the business due to long term sickness, around 64% of employees expressed that they had or were going to have a welfare meeting with their employer. It was noted that some confirmed that this was a valuable process, while others merely stated it was just a tick box exercise.  

Delving into the reasons behind an employee's absence and grasping the treatment they're undergoing isn't just a box to check—it's a powerful step toward providing meaningful support for their return-to-work journey.

Measures to support the return to work

Whether an employee has intermittent short-term absences for a reoccurring condition or has been on long term sick leave, we would often recommend that an employer obtains the employee’s consent to gain an Occupational Health (OH) assessment or medical report. An OH/medical report will provide guidance to an employer on the employee’s condition(s), treatment and medication, likely period of absence or requirements to have time off once they return through to whether there are any requirements for reasonable adjustments to support their return. For instance, a phased return to work, changes to working patterns, role modifications, ergonomic requirements, rest room breaks, medical care and risk assessments. 

Once an OH report has been prepared or upon an employee indicating that they are ready to return to work, it is sensible to hold a meeting with the employee prior to their return to discuss any updates and to formulate a plan for when they are ready to return to work. Looking at what their return might look like practically, emotionally and physically for the employee and the business. 

As an employer, it is important that you utilise the information that you gather from both the employee and any OH or medical guidance and take steps to put in place any measures ahead of the return to work and communicate what these are to all relevant parties (employee, manager, and where necessary and appropriate, colleagues). An employee feeling confident that they have the right support/environment in place on their first day back to work can be vital to a return being successful (or even happening!). 

We often talk about the importance of return-to-work meetings, these are paramount whether an employee has been off for a short term, intermittently or even long term. Return-to-work meetings provide a face-to-face opportunity for an employer to evaluate how an employee is feeling upon their return, and that an employer gets to sit down with the employee in the workplace and understand what is affecting an employee, the support they may need and any treatment that they may be receiving. How such meetings are conducted can have a key impact on the employee remaining in work or taking further time off. 

If you are not the employee’s manager, it will be important that any manager is aware of the needs and requirements of the returning employee and that they too feel supported to manage the situation. 


What constitutes a phased return to work? 

ACAS defines a phased return to the workplace as a gradual build up to returning to work, this can take many forms including starting back on reduced hours, doing lighter work than their usual duties and even only taking on smaller amounts of work. You can use a phased return to work not just after a pro-longed absence from the workplace, it could also be wise to use them following a serious injury, an operation or even a bereavement. The nature of the phased work will depend on the individual and their circumstances. 

In this recent report from the DWP (March 2023) just under half (46%) of employees surveyed had used a phased return to work as a way to ease their way back into their job after a long-term sickness absence.  

When asked, of those who had a phased return to work, almost three-quarters (70%) felt this helped them return to work quicker than otherwise. A quarter (25%) of employees who had a long-term sickness absence but did not have a phased return to work, felt that a phased return work would have helped them to return to work more quickly. The survey shows that where a phased return to work was implemented, they organisation was valued by the employees and 70% of participants felt that it facilitated a quicker return to the workplace. 

This goes to prove how imperative it is to plan for the return of your employees back into the organisation. 


Back to work support 

Consider the level of work that the employee will be undertaking and any phased approach to workloads that might be necessary upon their return. It is important that employees do not feel too overwhelmed following an absence, as this may cause a relapse and may even cause them to be unwell once again.  

Recognising the need to monitor and review how the employee is managing their health as well as their work, it is imperative that regular 1-2-1 reviews are set up with the employee to ensure that all is well, if the employee is struggling then there may be a need to review the workload and schedule and make any necessary adjustments or modifications to their work. 

Sometimes it might be necessary to refer the employee back to their medical professional or OH, to ensure that they are recovering well and that the work is not having a negative effect on their health and wellbeing. 

If you are part of the HR team and not the employee’s direct manager, ensure their manager is supported in managing the employee once they are back at work. This may require you to remind them of the necessity of regular 1-2-1s, monitoring workload and output, further medical reviews, and any relevant sickness absence processes and policies. 

Sickness absence is a complex matter both in terms of managing the reasons for absence, any medical or disability requirements, together with the emotional wellbeing issues that can be associated with ill health. Having clear policies and procedures together with training to manage absence in place to assist managers in these processes can be vital to ensuring that absences are for no longer than is necessary but more importantly, ensuring successful returns! 


This blog was written for us by our partners at ViewHR, if you would like any further information regarding return to work after sick leave please contact them via LinkedIn.