Supporting staff returning to work – top ten strategic steps revealed

Returning to work can be a challenging and daunting experience for employees following periods of long-term sickness absence.

If companies carefully plan and execute return-to-work initiatives, however, they can aid rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood of relapses. Formal return-to-work policies are not a legal obligation but can be a good way of setting out expectations, roles and responsibilities.

Employees’ physical and psychological circumstances will vary but appropriate measures will often include adjustments to working arrangements, job responsibilities and the workplace.  

GP fit notes and OH assessments can help determine what the adjustments should be – a few simple modifications can make a big difference. PMI Health Group suggests 10 key steps for businesses to help them manage the process. 

Adjustments to working arrangements

  1. A phased return: A structured and gradual return to full duties over a period of time may be beneficial for members of staff who feel concerned about how they will cope with a return to the responsibilities their job demands.  The process of gradually building back up to normal working hours within a suitable timescale, should be agreed with employees, in consultation with an Occupational Health professional where necessary. This process should help employees to avoid fatigue and exacerbating their symptoms.
  2. Modify working patterns: Offering flexible working hours or the opportunity to work from home in a safe environment can provide employees with the support needed to adjust to the demands of returning to work after a lengthy absence.
  3. Arrange wheels to work: Providing assistance with transport to and from work, by organising lifts with co-workers for example, will help some employees overcome a significant hurdle - particularly those suffering from conditions that prevent them from driving. For disabled employees, help may be available through the government’s Access to Work Scheme.
  4. Authorise rehabilitation leave: Managers should be sensitive to the healthcare requirements of individuals and allow time off from work for rehabilitation treatment, counselling and medical assessments. Employers should look at their benefits provision and make employees aware of any schemes that may support rehabilitation. EAPs, for example, can provide face-to-face counselling for stress-related illnesses while PMI policies will offer access to a range of treatments to aid recovery, such as physiotherapy. Group Income Protection policies will also often cover an element of treatment if it helps to prevent an absence becoming a claim.

Adjustments to job function

  1. Revise occupational duties: Employees’ job responsibilities may have to be revised to suit their capabilities on their return to work. In some cases the nature of an illness, injury or disability, or the side effects of medication, may result in workers becoming more vulnerable to health and safety risks. Where this is a possibility, the Health and Safety Executive advises employers to review and amend the risk assessments they are required to carry out under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Where duties do have to be modified, managers may have to consider re-allocating work to colleagues and addressing any possible implications of this.
  2. Empower staff to work: If required, additional training should be provided for workers to carry out their day-to-day tasks. This can be vital where a lack of confidence in carrying out a particular job function has caused a stress-related absence. Moreover, the longer the absence the greater the need for managers to arrange refresher courses.

Adjustments to the workplace environment

  1. A workplace in good shape: Timely assessments, carried out Occupational Health practitioners, should enable any necessary changes to be made to buildings, furniture, workstations, equipment or tools in advance of an employee’s return-to-work. These might include providing a ramp for people who find steps difficult, improving lighting for visually-impaired workers or lowering shelving for those suffering with, or recovering from, other physical disorders. Under the disability discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2010, organisations have a legal responsibility to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled employees before they can return to their job.
  2. Foster a supportive culture: For some people, psychological support from their employer can be as important as physical assistance. Line managers should be available to meet with individuals on their first day back at work, make them feel missed by the organisation and set out to make their first few weeks back as stress-free as possible. If the individual consents to colleagues being made aware of their health condition, they can then be encouraged to help in the rehabilitation process and to promote a positive team spirit.
  3. Bring the mountain to Mohammad: Support for employees can also be offered by moving the tasks they have to undertake to more accessible areas or closer to washing and toilet facilities.
  4. Help managers to manage: Supporting a return to work calls for line managers to fully understand their own responsibilities and to be sensitive to employees’ health and wellbeing requirements. They must also demonstrate good people management skills. To best support employees and to create an environment conducive to a successful return to the workplace, line managers will require appropriate training and guidance from Human Resources and Occupational Health advisors.

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Find out how we helped Vinci to help employees back to work in this short case study