Returning to work after long term absence

For the individual involved, returning to work after a period of long-term sickness absence can be an incredibly daunting prospect. This is often heightened by a loss of confidence, social anxiety, medication and, potentially, ongoing recovery after medical treatment.

As an employer, you have a responsibility to assist your employee’s return to the workplace. It is important to remember you are not alone in this process, with the support of occupational health there are a number of steps you can take to facilitate your employee’s smooth return to work whilst assisting their recovery and supporting their mental wellbeing.

The role of occupational health in supporting return-to-work

The role of occupational health is to understand the individual’s medical condition along with the nature of their job and the impact it may have on their health, as well as the effect of the condition on their ability to work safely and effectively. When returning to work after long-term illness, adjustments within the workplace may be necessary to allow the individual to return safely and reduce the risk of repeat absence from work.

In a long-term sickness absence case, typically an occupational health professional would be involved in a number of stages:

  • A consultation with the employee to assess if returning to work is appropriate.
  • Ensuring the individual is receiving the most evidence-based treatment as well as suggesting further treatment options to be considered by the treating doctor
  • Advising on any rehabilitation, proposing reasonable adjustments to be considered.
    • Suggesting a phased return
    • Temporary change in shift pattern
    • Gradual reintroduction of more manual aspects of the job
    • Recommending modifications to the workplace, equipment or the role
    • Where it is not possible to return to their role at present to consider temporary redeployment options where available
    • Permitting attendance at appropriate follow up medical appointments
    • Workplace support

What is a phased return to work?

A phased return to work allows a person to return to the workplace gradually over a period of time (usually no longer than 6 weeks) rather than going straight back to their normal working hours/patterns.

The reason a phased return is beneficial to a person who has been away from work for an extended period of time, is that it allows them to reintegrate back into the workplace at a pace that suits them.

A phased return may include:

  • Reduced hours which increase over time
  • Altered duties
  • Reduced working days (non-consecutive days)
  • Homeworking (Where appropriate)

Offering a phased return has many benefits, however, it may not always be possible due to the nature of the persons work.

Communication is key

While occupational health plays a crucial part in ensuring employees return to work safely and appropriately, it is advised that managers/HR to speak to their employees throughout their absence to understand the reasons for their absence and offer support where appropriate. If you are referring the employee to occupational health, it is important to communicate and discuss this with them to ensure that the employee and the employer get the most out of the consultation.