Conducting a return to work interview is an essential part of an organisation’s absence management programme. Having a focused discussion with an employee who returns to work is shown to help reduce unnecessary sickness absence and helps the returning employee transition back into the workplace environment with greater ease.
Return to work interviews also offer managers and HR personnel the opportunity to collate important information about the nature, length and frequency of staff absences.
In this guide, we look at best practice guidance for HR professionals and line managers preparing to conduct a return to work interview. The circumstances and issues will vary by case, for example, whether the employee is returning after maternity leave or a period of long term sickness absence. As such, it is important to prepare well and be clear on the purpose of the interview, the information you are looking to gather and what you as an employer need to do to provide the necessary support to ease the employee’s return to work.
Objectives of the return to work interview
Research has demonstrated that return to work interviews are extremely effective absence management tools, when used correctly.
The most effective interviews benefit both the employer and the employee equally.
The benefits to the employee include:
- Being made to feel that their work is valued and their presence at work is appreciated.
- Being given the opportunity to express any concerns or anxiety they may have about returning to work.
- Being able to ask for reasonable adjustments to their working conditions if a disability or long-term health condition has contributed to their absence.
- If applicable, being brought up to speed on work that took place during their absence.
The benefits to the employer include:
- The employee is less likely to take unnecessary sickness days in future, as they know they will have to explain their absence face-to-face during the return to work interview.
- The employee is likely to be more productive when resuming their duties, as they feel valued and welcomed back to the workplace.
- The employer can make sure they are fulfilling their duty of care towards their staff, by finding out if any reasonable adjustments for disability or illness need to be made.
- The company can track reasons for sickness absence among their staff, which will allow for changes to be made to improve attendance.
- The company can track the frequency and duration of sickness absences among individual staff members, which will allow them to issue verbal and written warnings at appropriate times.
While a return to work interview is not a ‘formal’ interview and can often be conducted in a very informal manner, it is advisable for employers to standardise a return to work interview procedure, ensuring all employees are treated fairly and consistently. This typically means developing a policy outlining the procedure to be followed and delivering training to relevant personnel for effective implementation.
Return to work interviews are conducted to minimise loss of productivity due to sickness leave among your workforce. When considering how to conduct a return to work interview, policy makers should keep the following outcomes in mind:
- The employee should feel welcomed back to work.
- The manager conducting the interview should record the reason for the absence and establish whether this reason is likely to cause further absences.
- The employee should be given the chance to express whether any issues at work contributed to the absence (e.g. workplace bullying impacting their mental health, or physical strain caused by manual work).
- If necessary, the manager should make the employee aware that continued absences may lead to disciplinary proceedings (this would only be the case with staff members who take regular sick days).
By using these specific outcomes to guide your ‘how to conduct a return to work interview’ policy, you can create a comprehensive interview checklist to help you manage and combat staff absenteeism.
When to conduct a return to work interview
As there is no legal obligation to hold a return to work interview, there are no official guidelines for when they should and should not be conducted. You may interview an employee upon their return to work following a year of maternity leave, several months absence due to ill health or even, a single day at home with a cold.
While return to work interviews can be conducted following any duration of absence, they are typically not necessary for short-term absences of up to and including a few days. However, it may be prudent to interview a member of staff who has had several short-term absences relatively close together.
So that all members of staff know what to expect from the beginning of their employment, you should establish a company policy for when a return to work interview should be conducted. For example, you may decide it is appropriate for a return to work interview to be conducted following any employee sickness absence of longer than three consecutive days.
Whatever you decide, this information should be set out in your employee handbook or the equivalent welcome materials your employees receive upon joining the company. You should also develop a checklist for line managers and senior personnel so that they understand how to conduct a return to work interview effectively.
Preparing for the return to work interview
The government-funded initiative Fit for Work recommends that a return to work interview follows the six key steps outlined below.
The overall tone of the return to work interview should be positive. The manager conducting the interview should begin by welcoming the employee back to work. During this initial step you should ask the employee about the reason for their absence and allow them plenty of time to explain. You should also ensure that the employee is truly fit to return to work and is not simply returning for fear of accruing more sickness days.
Next, the manager should update the employee with anything they need to know about events that occurred during their absence. This will make the employee feel included in the work environment and allow them to resume their normal duties effectively.
Find out if there are any adjustments which could be made to ease the employee’s transition back into the work environment. If the employee has a Fit Note from their GP, this would be a good time to discuss the particulars of that note. If the employee has been deemed ‘fit for some work’, the manager should find out what duties they can and cannot undertake.
Make a plan
If adjustments are necessary, the manager should create a plan with the employee which sets out how they will transition back to work. This may include shorter shifts until the employee has adjusted, or if certain activities are prohibited (e.g. heavy lifting), assigning the employee different duties.
The manager should record the employee’s days off on their attendance record, while the employee is present. Get the employee to confirm that the recorded dates are correct, as this will prevent them disputing the dates should they appeal against an attendance warning later. If regular absenteeism is a problem for this employee, make sure they are aware that continuing to miss work may result in disciplinary action.
Open for questions
To conclude the interview, the manager should ask the employee if they have any questions or comments. Give them the chance to express any concerns they have about returning to work.
Return to work interview questions
As a guide, the following questions and points provide a helpful framework for the return to work interview:
- Welcome the individual back. They may be feeling anxious, particularly if they have been of work for a long period. Putting them at ease should help with having a more open and meaningful discussion.
- Explain the purpose of the return to work interview, specifically that the organisation monitors all absence and that the interview is an informal discussion but the information provided is important and will be kept on record.
- Be clear that the return to work interview is not a disciplinary hearing nor is it part of a disciplinary process.
- Ask how the individual is feeling now, and if they have sought professional medical advice. Be careful not to be too probing or intrusive, let the employee talk to you.
- Ask if the reason for their absence is related to a disability or maternity, as disability and maternity-related absences should be recorded separately to other illnesses.
- Ask if the individual feels they need any support from the organisation with the return to work (‘reasonable adjustments’).
- Advise them of their absence record to date, and ask if they are in agreement.
- Advise if their level of absence has triggered any sickness absence policy markers, if so what the implications are with reference to the absence policy.
- Ask if they have any questions.
Interview tips for line managers
To ensure the interview runs smoothly and is as productive as possible, managers should aim to:
- Be objective. Personal feelings should not influence the tone or direction of the interview.
- Ask open-ended questions. This will encourage the employee to share more information about the reason for their absence and feelings about returning to work.
- Listen and show interest. Make sure the employee feels that their concerns have been heard and give them enough time to express themselves.
- A return to work interview must be a positive experience
While return to work interviews do discourage unnecessary sick days, employers should be careful not to use these interviews as a way to instil fear among their staff. Employees should feel comfortable taking sick days as and when it is genuinely necessary – it is their statutory right. Working while ill may see high attendance rates but risks overall impacting overall productivity (‘presenteeism’). This requires a careful balance to be achieved, and through the return to work interview employers can gain an understanding into how employees can be supported to perform at their best.
DavidsonMorris are experienced employment law specialists, with expertise in all areas of workforce management such as managing sickness absence and employees’ return to work. The return to work interview should form part of the organisation’s absence management programme, and be used by the employer to gain a full understanding of the employee’s reason for absence and any ongoing issues that may require specific support to enable the employee to resume their role effectively.
As each case will be different, it may be advisable to take advice on a specific matter, particularly where there are potentially related issues, such as concerns about feigned illness or fake sick notes.
If you have a question or need advice on any aspect of employees returning to work after an extended absence, contact us.
Return to work interview FAQs
What questions to ask employees returning to work?
Questions should cover topics such as how their health is currently and whether they are fit enough to return to work;. whether they have sought medical advice; if anything work-related contributed to your absence; and if there are any workplace adjustments which could support with their return to work.
When should a return to work form be done?
Completing a return to work form when the employee is back at work aft absence helps to gather information about why the employee was off work and if any support is needed to help with the return to work and reduce further absences.
Is a return to work a legal requirement?
Return to work interviews are not a legal requirement but they are best practice for employers as part of an absence management programme and to support employee welfare and wellbeing.
Last updated: 2 September 2021