Return to Work Interviews

It happens, people are off work for a whole host of reasons beyond holidays and annual leave, and this is where the return to work interview comes into play.

These interviews are about developing an understanding of why people are off, what you can learn from it, how you can support your team better, and maybe what you can do to change. They are a proven method of reducing absenteeism.

But, understanding why the interviews are carried out in the first place, and knowing how to conduct them effectively are the building blocks.

Purpose

Essentially, return to work interviews are to help us understand why staff have taken time off on sick, and if there are any trends.

In some cases a return to work interview could identify similar issues amongst workers that the company can then address, for example:

  • Staff complaints of back pain could suggest a company might need to consider investing in more ergonomic office furniture.
  • Headaches might indicate better workplace lighting is required.
  • Frequent stress could be caused by work overload or aggressive culture.

By understanding why a person has been away from work due to sickness, you should be able to make changes for the better, you'll have improved attendance and motivated staff.

It is however, important to understand that return to work interviews aren't about accusing staff of pretend illnesses, but are merely a more more accurate method for recording why workers have taken the time off. They should be friendly and open, never confrontational.

Training

The first step is getting your managers on board.  Some will be uncomfortable performing the interview, insist that they don't have the time to do them, or aren't sure of the benefits. There is a lot of evidence of their effectiveness, but getting them working well might start with training up those who'll conduct them.

ACAS provide some excellent guidance, well worth reading through.

The Interview

Be tactful and sensitive, you are here to learn, not judge.

Ideally, you (or their line manager) should carry out a face-to-face return to work interview as soon as a person is back in the workplace, while the reason for absence is still fresh in an employee's mind, and so that managers can provide a relevant and adequate duty of care for their return.

Interviews should always be conducted in a private, quiet room where you won't be disturbed or overheard.

Effective return to work interviews should always begin by welcoming them back. If any changes have taken place during their absence, now is a good time to mention it. Try to explain why the interview is taking place, and emphasise that it's informal that should only take around 10 minutes or so.

You need to ask about the reasons behind the employee's sickness, be tactful and sensitive though, you are here to learn, not judge.

Use open ended questions, let them speak, listen carefully.

Use open-ended questions and listen, don't interrupt, let your staff member speak freely.

To make the process easier, you may wish to use a well-designed form that has been devised specifically for return to work interviews, it helps with consistency and accurate data recording, especially where you have different managers across your business conducting the interviews.

The interview will provide insights into the reason the employee was off work, but it also gives you the opportunity to ensure they are actually ready to return to work. You can also decide if any adjustments need to be made to ensure a smooth transition back to work. It could be changes to tasks, workload or even working hours.

You may need to consider if they need additional support, perhaps because of personal or health issues. You might refer them to an HR manager or occupational therapist, for instance.

During the interview, talk about the company's policy relating to absenteeism, particularly if this has become a frequent occurrence. Measures to help prevent further absences in the future may also be discussed and agreed.

At the end of the interview, you should both sign and date the form to acknowledge what has been discussed. This prevents any disputes or misunderstandings from occurring in the future.

Important takeaways:

  • Do them as soon as the employee is back in at work
  • Welcome the employee back
  • Ask them about their reasons for absence
  • Let them speak, listen with an open mind
  • Document the discussion

Final thoughts

Because of the sensitive nature of return to work interviews, and the skill required to carry them out effectively, you and your managers should receive adequate training.

It's vital that you and your managers take a consistent approach to these interviews and that the same interview format is used for every employee. Don't pick and choose who to interview based on whether they think someone is less honest than another worker. If you only interview those workers that you suspect have an illegitimate reason for being off, you could be accused of discrimination.

Remember that information you gain from interviews should be stored safely and kept confidential, in accordance with the Data Protection Act.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash