Returning to work

Coming back to work after a long absence is never easy for anyone

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Thursday, Sep 22, 2022

Whether your employee has been away on sabbatical, has been taken ill, or has been raising a newborn, it will take time for them to readjust and settle into the right frame of mind.

Your process for handling their return can make a huge difference to this readjustment. Procedures you put in place can help make sure employees are working productively as quickly as possible, but also feel well supported.

When an employee is due to return

Line managers should acknowledge and discuss any employee absence, regardless of duration and whether paid or unpaid.

This may only be a brief conversation with no formal outcomes or changes to working conditions — for example, after a week’s holiday. Other types of absence may need greater attention, including long-term illness (physical or mental), disability and maternity leave.

In all cases, you can proactively smooth an employee’s return to work by:

  • helping to make the employee feel valued and important
  • supporting business continuity
  • reducing any burden on your absent employee’s colleagues

Your return to work policy

There are no legal guidelines regarding the content of a return to work policy. In fact, your company doesn’t need one by law.

However, an agreed policy can support fair and consistent treatment of all employees. It can also make it easier for line managers to support their teams, by giving clear guidelines and processes to follow.

What to include in your return to work policy

When writing a return to work policy, you may wish to answer questions such as:

  • What time off will you provide to attend medical appointments?
  • Are any physical workplace adjustments needed to support a returning employee’s new requirements?
  • What will be expected of line managers upon an employee’s return?
  • Can you provide sources of additional support such as counselling, training or links to charities or advisory bodies?
  • How will changes in expectations be managed and recorded?

Your policy should focus on ways to retain and support employees after absence. If applicable, you might wish to discuss your draft policy with a trade union representative.

It’s also helpful to consider how your return to work policy corresponds to other policies covering health and safety, personnel and equality issues.

Conducting a return to work interview

The questions above may also be covered in a return to work interview. This is usually held on the first day back, and is an opportunity to welcome an employee and discuss plans to support their return.

Their line manager should be prepared to discuss the reasons for the absence along with any ongoing needs and how they will impact attendance. They should also bring the employee up to date with relevant work issues.

The employee might wish to highlight concerns or changes that affect their work. The line manager should be receptive to these concerns and encourage a positive, two-way discussion.

After the interview, it’s a good idea to make a formal record of the discussion. This can ensure that actions are carried out, and can be a useful reference at future reviews.

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