It happens, people are off work for a whole host of reasons beyond holidays and annual leave, and this is where the return to work interview comes into play.
Return to work interviews are about developing an understanding of why people are off, what you and the employee's line manager can learn from it, how you can support your team better - particularly when they return to work, and maybe what reasonable adjustments you can make. They are a proven method of reducing absenteeism and sickness absence.
But, understanding why return to work interviews are carried out in the first place, and knowing how to conduct them well are the building blocks.
What is a return to work interview?
Essentially, return to work interviews help us understand why staff have taken time off, and with that knowledge we can improve, find out if there are any issues with work, help the employee, and try and reduce future absences.
In some cases a return to work interview could identify similar issues amongst employees that the company can then address, for example:
- Staff complaints of back pain could suggest a company might need to consider investing in more ergonomic office furniture.
- Headaches might indicate better workplace lighting is required.
- Frequent stress could be caused by work overload or aggressive culture.
By understanding why a person has been away from work due to sickness, you should be able to make changes for the better, maybe the workplace environment, maybe looking a phased return. Ultimately you're hoping for improved attendance and motivated staff, and to prevent future absences.
It is however, important to understand that return to work interviews aren't about accusing staff of pretend illnesses, but are merely a more more accurate method for recording why workers have taken the time off. They should be friendly and open, never confrontational.
The first step is getting your line managers on board. Some will be uncomfortable performing the interview, insist that they don't have the time to do them, or aren't sure of the benefits. There is a lot of evidence of their effectiveness, but getting them working well might start with training up those who'll conduct them.
Return to work interviews best practise
Be tactful and sensitive, you are here to learn, not judge.
Ideally, you (or their line manager) should carry out a face-to-face return to work interview as soon as a person is back in the workplace, while the reason for absence is still fresh in an employee's mind, and so that managers can provide a relevant and adequate duty of care for their return.
Interviews should always be conducted in a quiet, private room where you won't be disturbed or overheard.
I have to admit I don't like the term 'interview' in all this. It suggests a formal, perhaps awkward, pressured, or confrontational setting. Reminiscent of an old-style job interview. It shouldn't be like this. In my opinion it should be an informal discussion, with free flowing and friendly conversation.
Effective return to work interviews should always begin by welcoming them back. If any changes have taken place during their absence, now is a good time to mention it. Try to explain why the interview is taking place, and emphasise that it's informal that should only take around 10 minutes or so.
You need to ask about the reasons behind the employee's sickness, be tactful and sensitive though, you are here to learn, not judge.
Use open ended questions, let them speak, listen carefully.
Use open-ended questions and listen, don't interrupt, let your staff member speak freely.
To make the process easier, you may wish to use a well-designed form that has been devised specifically for return to work interviews, it helps with consistency and accurate data recording, especially where you have different managers across your business conducting the interviews.
The interview will provide insights into the reason the employee was off work, but it also gives you the opportunity to ensure they are actually ready to return to work. You can also decide if any adjustments need to be made to ensure a smooth transition back to work. It could be changes to tasks, workload or even working hours.
You may need to consider if they need additional support, perhaps because of personal or health issues. You might refer them to an HR manager or occupational therapist, for instance.
During the interview, talk about the company's policy relating to absenteeism, particularly if this has become a frequent occurrence. Measures to help prevent further absences in the future may also be discussed and agreed.
At the end of the interview, you should both sign and date the form to acknowledge what has been discussed. This prevents any disputes or misunderstandings from occurring in the future.
- Do them as soon as the employee is back in at work
- Welcome the employee back
- Ask them about their reasons for absence
- Let them speak, listen with an open mind
- Document the discussion
Return to work interview questions
Here's some questions that might get things flowing. Obviously every return to work interview will be different, so be flexible, this about this before you start the interview. It's not about being intrusive, but keep your questions open and give them chance to talk. And remember, use a private meeting room.
- How are you feeling, do you feel well enough to be back at work?
- Did you see your GP, do you have a fit note? If you're taking any medication, are there any side effects we should know about?
- Is it a recurring condition or ongoing condition that we need to accommodate better?
- Are there any adjustments we can make to help you settle back into work?
- Are there any adjustments we can make that might help avoid future absences?
- Do you think work contributed to your absence in any way?
Do you have any questions for us, anything else you'd like to discuss?
When should a return to work interview be done?
An easy one, a back to work interview should happen as soon as they get back to work. Don't delay. Some of the things you need to discuss need to happen before they start work, especially if you need to make accommodations for them
Final thoughts on return to work interviews
Because of the sensitive nature of return to work interviews, and the skill required to carry them out effectively, you and your managers should receive adequate training.
It's vital that you and your managers take a consistent approach to these interviews and that the same interview format is used for every employee. Don't pick and choose who to interview based on whether they think someone is less honest than another worker. If you only interview those workers that you suspect have an illegitimate reason for being off, you could be accused of discrimination.
Remember that information you gain from interviews should be stored safely and kept confidential, in accordance with the Data Protection Act.