A return to work plan for returning employees signed off with sickness or stress is a key part of your absence management policy.
But what does a good return to work plan look like, and how can you develop one that works for your organisation?
What is a return to work plan?
When employees take time off, a return to work plan ensures they can ease back into their role with minimal disruption. But a return to work process can also help you to identify certain trends in your organisation’s absence patterns. And once you’ve identified these trends, you can act on them, which may result in fewer unplanned absences in the future.
For an example of how this might work, imagine an employee who’s taken some time off after suffering a workplace injury. As part of the return to work process, you can talk to the employee about how they think the accident was caused. Maybe they feel that their equipment isn’t fit for purpose, or that an obvious hazard could have been more clearly signposted?
In any case, these insights will help you to find ways to make similar accidents less likely in the future. Perhaps through investing in better equipment, or through rethinking your safety signage.
The return to work process can also feed into your workplace wellbeing program. With a return to work interview, you might be able to identify ways you can champion your employees’ wellbeing.
For example, an employee might complain that they feel overworked and that this is having an adverse effect on their health. How might you be able to find out if this is a common feeling for many of your employees, and what steps could be taken to address it?
The benefits of a return to work plan
A return to work process will make employees feel valued and heard. It will demonstrate that you’re invested in their health and wellbeing and that you’re willing to address their needs. In this way, a return to work process can reduce staff turnover and help you to retain your most skilled and experienced workers.
If you help ease your employees back into their roles after a period of absence, you’ll likely see an increase in your overall productivity. Even if your returning employees cannot yet work at full capacity, they’ll be able to do more for your business than would’ve been possible if they were absent.
How to develop a return to work plan
Some organisations conduct return-to-work interviews after every period of unplanned absence. This is good practice, as you never know what sort of insights you might be able to glean from even the most routine of conversations.
But many businesses use a return to work plan as a means of dealing with periods of long-term absence. For example, if an employee’s missed three weeks of work, and you’re worried that their continued absence will become a problem, you could set the wheels in motion to get them back to work as soon as possible.
Talk to the employee, to find out whether they feel ready to return to work yet.
If possible, get some advice from your HR department, your health and safety specialists, and the employee’s GP. If the employee’s happy to return to work, and if you can confirm that returning to work won’t interfere with their recovery, then it’s time to put your plan into action.
Reasonable adjustments – making the workplace suitable for their return
Consider whether you’ll need to make any reasonable adjustments for the employee to return to work. If they’ve been injured, this might involve temporarily giving them a desk job as opposed to something more physical, or allowing them to work remotely. You may have to phase their return – letting them work part-time hours until they’re ready to return full-time.
In any case, the return to work process will have to be tailored to the individual employee, and their individual circumstances. This is why it’s so important to talk to the employee throughout the process. You need to clearly communicate what you require of them, and they need to clearly communicate what they feel capable of.
Some employees may take on more work than they’re able to manage when returning to work after an absence, as they’ll want to prove themselves. But the most important thing is that they recover. So make sure you manage their expectations, and make it clear that their health must take priority over their work.
Finally, without breaching anyone’s confidentiality, you’ll have to communicate to the rest of the team what’s happening, and why. If the phased return to work is going to affect anyone in your team, whether through increased hours, a change of responsibilities, or any other accommodation, you must make sure that everyone’s on the same page. Nobody should be put out by any of the changes you’re going to introduce.
If the employee’s in a client-facing role, you may also have to inform their clients or customers of the temporary change in circumstances.
A return to work plan made simple
The edays absence management system has features designed to make the return to work process as simple as possible. Our custom-built return to work forms can be completely tailored to your requirements. And with clear insights into your staff sickness patterns, you’ll be able to identify trends and act on them.
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Katrina is edays' own People Director with significant UK and international experience in delivering people strategy and value-adding HR solutions across a range of organisations and sectors (including Arriva, Boots, Rolls Royce, the utility and charity sectors). Katrina has over 20 years of experience in Human Resources and is CIPD qualified.