HR 22 October 2020

The questions you should be asking in an employee’s return to work interview

Two young women meeting - a return to work interview at the office
Return to work interview questions should be non-confrontational
Writing for Business Advice, HR director VickI Field, with advice from medical director Dr PreethI Daniel, both from London private GP clinic, London Doctors Clinic, discusses the return to work interview questions employers should be asking their staff.

The CIPD calculates that absence per head costs 554 per employee, with the average absence being 4.4 days per annum (2018 data). The costs include sick pay for absent employees, but there are also hidden costs which include the cost of cover, reduced performance, the impact on colleagues, and missed business opportunities.

Absence has a significant effect on the bottom line of a business, but companies also want healthy and happy employees, who are fully engaged at work. Identifying any potential health issues early and helping the employee to address these is a good sign of a caring employer. Therefore, managing absence is one of the most important aspects of a comprehensive HR strategy.

Managing absence involves three m’s: measuring, monitoring, and managing, and all of these need to be done properly in order to reduce the cost of absence within a business.

Return to work interview

The best way to manage absence is to ensure that employees provide as much information as possible. We need to know the level of absence (measurement), we need to analyse the information (monitor), and we need to have targeted strategies at a company, and an individual basis (management).

The information is captured in a return to work interview; where the manager welcomes the employee back and has a discussion with employee about the reason for absence. The interview should ensure a check to see if they are well enough to return to work, and this is the opportunity to discuss any concerns about the levels of absence. The interview is generally written up in a form.

Consistency across the company is important and therefore, a well written and comprehensive Absence Management policy is at the heart of a proper approach to managing absence. The policy will cover the process and obligations that the employee and manager should follow, and be clear about the purpose of the return to work interview.

Everyone can get sick, and so the meeting should not be designed to worry the employee about taking time off for genuine sickness. No one wants a sick employee coughing in the office, and spreading their germs.

Fear of taking sick leave can lead to presenteeism, which can create further issues either the illness being spread or shared, or higher absence as the person becomes worse, leading to more time off. It also harbours a sense of the employer being uncaring leading to demotivated employees.

What should the interview cover?

The interview is a non-confrontational meeting to discuss the absence, which should be held on the first day back. This is to ensure that the employee is aware that their absence was noticed, to provide any support to help them return to work, and to identify if there is a wider issue which might need closer attention.

Introducing trigger points? is a helpful way to identify concerning traits, and instigate a specific absence plan conversation. The Bradford Factor is a common trigger tool, which gives more attention to the number of absences than the length of the absences. However, many companies develop their own such tools to meet their needs such as “three separate periods of absence over three months”, or “twice being absent on a Friday”.

Once an employee hits a trigger point, it enables the manager to discuss the concerns in the return to interview.

As a result, the form should be pre-populated with the absence of the employee to date, so how many times this year they have been absent and the length of those absences. HR or the manager can then look to see if there are any trends developing.

What trends might we see?

  1. Intermittent and random short-term sickness

In these cases, there may be some malingering (unjustified absence), genuine and unconnected illnesses, or an underlying condition. If the latter, studies show that identifying these issues early can lead to the most positive outcome for the employee and the company.

Dr PreethI Daniel: “Often underlying chronic conditions such as stress might show up as regular, but intermittent absence. A medical review can help you identify if there is a chronic condition, and give you the tools to manage it most effectively.

“Low back pain is another common reason for absences at work, and any mechanical pain issues such as low back pain or repetitive strain injuries need a robust Health and Safety assessment at work”.

If the absence is malingering, the formalisation of a back to work interview? can introduce an element of fear factor? where the employee realises that the company is measuring and monitoring absence, and that there will be consequences for continuing to take adhoc days off.

  1. Long-term absence

Long-term absence is generally considered to be over 4 weeks, and requires specific management.

It could indicate an illness which constitutes a disability under the Equality Act 2010, which needs to managed in a particular way. Under the Equality Act 2010, the definition of a disability is a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on someone’s ability to do normal daily activities. Substantial is more than minor or trivial. Long-term means 12 months or more.

Dr PreethI Daniel is clear about the need for medical advice: “Long term stress or a formal diagnosis of anxiety or depression needs a thorough review of what treatment theyve had or what is recommended by their medical practitioner on their return to work. As a doctor, I may suggest a patient goes back on reduced hours or a phased return initially to let them settle back in. These can be formalised with a return to work fit note.

“Furthermore, an operation and the subsequent recovery, may require employees to return with altered duties such as avoiding heavy lifting or walking for too long. Medical input is crucial in identifying if the person does have a disability, and the employer will be given advice about other reasonable adjustments.

“Not all long-term absence is related to a disability, and once an employee is considered to be fit to work, the interview gives the manager the opportunity to understand the support that the employee may need to return to work in their previous capacity.”


The impact of presenteeism? on profitability: Why sick days are good for business

With new research showing the number of employees turning up to work ill has risen dramatically, Matt Liggins, director of wellbeing at Health@Work, explains to employers why, in fact, sick days are good for business.