Return to work interviews

09 July 2019

Dealing with sick employees can be difficult when you don't follow a proper absence management process.

A return to work interview provides you with the opportunity to understand an employee's reason behind their sickness absence. As well as helping them prevent future absences - protecting your business, and their welfare.

The interviews are classed as an informal discussion, but don't underestimate their importance. If you neglect conducting return to work interviews, you could end up facing discrimination claims, re-hiring employees, and even reputational damage.

In this guide, we'll look at what a return to work interview is; the benefits and downfalls; and how to help employees come back to work safely.

What is a return to work interview?

A return to work interview is a meeting where you establish whether an employee needs additional help to start working again.

Return to work interviews help employers fully understand the reasons behind a sickness absence. The meetings also identify absence trends which could be connected to an employee's sickness absence.

As an employer, you need to follow your company policy for dealing with sickness absence. This duty of care starts from the first day of sick leave, to when they decide to return.

employee making notes by hand

When should you conduct a return to work interview?

Return to work interviews should ideally be conducted on their first day back at work. They're normally held by an employee's line manager or your occupational health representative.

Their line manager establishes whether they're 'fit enough' to perform work-related requirements (according to their medical history). If an employee has an ongoing or recurring condition, you need to factor this into their capability levels.

When an employee isn’t well enough to work, you shouldn't force them to. It's not about meeting project quotas or maintaining top leads. In these situations, you need to prioritise the employee's health and well-being over business productivity.

What questions are asked during a return to work interview?

Most questions asked at return to work interviews revolve around the employee's illness or injury. But you need to ask questions which determine their safe return and work capability.

Here are a few examples a line manager can use:

  • How are you feeling? Have you been seen by a medical professional?
  • Do you require any support from your colleagues, managers, or the HR department?
  • Can you share more information about your absence?
  • Is your absence related to a disability or long-term health condition?
  • Do you have any further questions for me?

What is the law on return to work interviews?

Under UK employment law, return to work interviews are not a legal requirement. However, they are highly recommended, as they're beneficial for both the employee and the employer.

You must stay compliant with rules outlined under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA). For example, ensuring employees don't face unfair treatment throughout their absence.

If you neglect any legal requirement or protected characteristic right during the meetings, you could end up facing . Employers may be forced to pay compensation and reinstate employees if they’re guilty of unfair dismissal.

Employee rights during return to work interviews

In some cases, an employee may suffer from an ongoing condition or disability. Because of their health, they may need to take additional leave or extended sickness absence.

If this is the case, employees are legally entitled to reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. A reasonable adjustment can help employees return smoothly and quickly. They may also be able to help them keep up with the same format for work as their colleagues.

Reasonable adjustments differ from employee to employee; and they can also highlight whether anything at work contributed to their ill-health.

If long-term absence is commonly taken, ask how you can help manage their illness. This is especially important if their ill-health impacts them on a day-to-day basis. Think about what adjustments you can provide, like a phased return.

an employee working on a phone and tablet

How to manage a return to work interview in the workplace

Whilst a return to work interview can help manage an employee's absence, they shouldn't be feared.

Remind your staff that it's an informal meeting, used to protect their legal rights and welfare. That way, employees will be able to take sick leave when needed - knowing their return to work will be supported.

Here are factors to consider when managing a return to work interview:

Check in before they return to work

It's best practice for employers to check in on employees before returning to work.

You don't have to call them every day whilst they're off sick. Nor do employees have a legal obligation to reveal details about their health. Just remind them that you're contacting them as a support base if they need it.

The return to work interview should be done on their first day back. Try to keep the tone of the meeting supportive. Remember, these interviews aren't used in the same way as resolving a disciplinary matter.

Conduct a return to work meeting

The next step to take is to conduct return to work meetings. Start by asking them to highlight the reasons behind their absence. Give them plenty of time to disclose their case and avoid making assumptions. Make sure you conduct interviews in a private meeting room, away from other colleagues.

The point of conducting a return to work interview is to determine whether an employee wants to work again. By allowing them to present their case, you can make a clear opinion on whether they need anything to work comfortably.

In some instances, you may believe certain employees are falsifying facts. Avoid declaring this unless you have very solid evidence to prove it. Instead, investigate the root cause of those claiming sickness by following your absence management policy.

Deliver interview questions carefully

Asking the right questions is very important during the return to work meeting.

We've already outlined a few example questions you can use. But the way you deliver these questions (i.e., your tone and attitude) is equally as important.

When asking return to work interview questions, make sure you:

  • Keep objective: Keep an eye on your tone of voice; or the direction of the return to work interview. Be empathetic and ensure they see your comfort and care.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Encourage the employee to share as much information on their absence as possible. This'll help you establish if they want to come back to work.
  • Actively listen: Make sure you fully listen to the employee during the interview. It might seem like an obvious thing. But it's hard to fully understand all cases, especially if they have underlying health conditions.
  • Share their side: Allow the employee to fully share their side of the case. Make sure they have your full attention and enough time to explain themselves.
  • Be positive: Remember, a return to work interview is not the same as a disciplinary hearing. Rather, it's more like an informal meeting, held in a private space, where employees can disclose anything they desire. Remember, ill-health should never be held against anyone, no matter what their absence has led to.

Provide an update on business matters

You should provide the employee with an update on your recent business matters. This is regardless of what the employee's role is or what their responsibilities are.

You should also state if the employee returns to their original role, or to another equally-standing position.

Updating the employee isn't about downloading 'office-gossip' to them. It's about making them aware of business news or announcements. This makes the employee feel valued, as integral members of the business.

Offer reasonable adjustments if needed

If required, some employees may need additional support upon their return. You can offer them reasonable adjustments, like a phased return, a private room to work, or amended working hours.

Employers may choose to offer them regardless of what illness the employee is suffering from. The aim is to ease their transition and make them feel supported. By doing this, you can protect their welfare, as well as your business's.

If an employee provides a fit note from a medical professional, talk about making changes to their work-related requirements. Just because they're deemed as 'fit to work' doesn't mean they're ready to hit the ground running on day one.

Collect information through absence records

It's so important to collect relevant information through the employee's absence record. These records help outline how many sick days an employee took and when they were taken.

The employee should have access to these records and state whether the information is correct. Both you and the employee should read the information and sign the work form. If they dispute anything on the work form, they could appeal against reviews for future absences.

An employee signing their absence record form

What are the benefits of return to work interviews?

Employers gain many benefits from holding return to work interviews. Setting them as a standard business practice means you'll be able to manage sickness absences better.

Here are the benefits of return to work interviews:

  • Gain insights: These interviews are an opportunity to delve deeper into the nature of an employee's illness. This is especially helpful when their illness may lead to further absences.
  • Uncover issues: You can uncover underlying problems that need to be addressed or where further medical information may be required.
  • Identify reasonable adjustments: If an employee has a disability, you're legally obliged to make changes to work conditions to help them during work.
  • Spot patterns: When you keep detailed records of the meetings, they can help you spot absence patterns. For example, some employees may tend to call in sick on Mondays and Fridays. Once you've spotted the patterns, investigations can prevent further absences from affecting both the line manager and the business.

What are the downfalls of return to work interviews?

In simple terms, there aren't many downfalls for a return to work interview.

One of the biggest downfalls of a return to work interview is establishing their necessity. Some employers may perceive them as a 'waste of time' or inconvenient. However, this is probably likely because they've not used them before or haven't conducted them properly.

In some interviews, questions can be too pressing or touch on personal issues. Try to be sensitive during these times, as health-related issues can be complicated matters for anyone.

Get expert advice on return to work interviews with Peninsula

A return to work interview is a beneficial tool to have in your absence management policy.

The interviews allow you to spot patterns of absence and provide support to sick employees. But if you neglect the meetings, employees could end up worsening their health and well-being - holding you liable and contempt.

Peninsula offers expert advice on an employee's return to work interviews. Our team offers a 24/7 HR advice service which is available 365 days a year; with multi-lingual assistance and fully trained counsellors ready to help.

Want more advice? Book a free consultation with one of our HR consultants. Call 0800 028 2420.


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