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Supporting employees returning to work following absence

Managers play a vital role in ensuring a successful return to work following sickness absence.

The longer someone is off work, the harder it becomes for them to return, particularly if they are left on their own to overcome barriers upon return.

Read on to find out how you can best support your employees to return to the workplace.

Why is supporting employees back into the workplace so important?

Sickness absence from work is often unavoidable but, when unduly prolonged, it is damaging. It is not in anyone’s interest for people who are off sick to come back to work before it is safe for them to do so, but there is evidence that suggests if an employee is not suitability supported whilst absent and returning back into the workplace, they are unlikely to return to work or the return is unsuccessful; this can lead to further implications for the individuals and their families, employers and our wider society.

What you can do as a manager: before the return

Return to work policy. As a manager it is important that you are aware of your organisation’s return to work policy. If your workplace does not have a return to work policy, suggest to your employer that having one would be useful.

Reflect upon your attitudes and beliefs about absences. Would you likely think about or treat an employee or absence episode differently based on the reason for absence (if you know the reported reason)? Be matter of fact regarding the absence, whether it’s a physical or mental health-related absence. Remember, we need to be acting in the same way to support all absences; being honest, matter-of-fact and sensitive.

Every episode is different. Consider that each individual episode of absence, for every employee in your organisation, may need to be supported and monitored differently. Keep a non-judgemental and curious approach to ensure you manage each episode or case of absence according to the needs and circumstances of the employee.

Work together. Successful returns to work depend on constructive co-operation between everyone involved. This includes the employee, you as their manager, other employees and colleagues, Human Resources and other agencies that may have been involved during the employee’s absence e.g. GP or Occupational Health. An effective plan and collaboration between everyone involved, as appropriate, will maximise the chance of success, both whilst they are still absent from work and during the early stages of their return.

Plan for reengagement. Rarely are those who return to work following absence fully fit upon their return, regardless of the reason for absence (either mental or physical). It will take time for the employee to recover skills related to speed, strength and agility in mind and body. It is unrealistic and unnecessary to expect an employee to return when they aren't 100% fit; it lengthens absence and might compromise future employability. Be aware of your expectations here, think about and discuss with the employee what will help the them engage with their work as best they can in the early stages of their return (so, for example, would a phased return be beneficial?) and agree a return-to-work action plan together before they return.

Assess the workplace. Take time to consider with the employee what led to the absence and if there were any contributing factors within the workplace. Discuss anything that can be realistically changed and accommodated, including any adjustments to help aid the return into the workplace. Remember to not promise anything that isn’t possible, this may impact on your relationship going forward.

Update. It is helpful to give the employee an idea of what has been going on whilst they have been absent from work. This includes social life as well as work-related developments.

Offer the opportunity to connect. It might be helpful for the employee to come into the workplace before they formally return to work. Ask them what they think would be helpful and assure them it is okay to change their mind on this.

Think logistics. Ensure your employee doesn’t return to an unmanageable in-tray, a usurped workspace that is now being used by someone or something else, or that their passwords and access to the building are no longer in use or valid. Coming back to a workplace where there is a backlog of work that has built up in their absence can also detrimental for the employee’s return, so make sure this is dealt with.

Manage reactions from colleagues and clients with good communication practice. For employees returning to the workplace, colleague or client fear, ignorance and hostility (which typically comes from not wanting to say or do the wrong thing) can be a source of distress. Stigma and discrimination (especially with regards to mental health and conditions) can be avoided if we as managers communicate with absent or returning employees regarding who will be told what, how and when; including what language will be used with the team and external individuals the employee is involved with at work. Be guided by the employee’s thoughts and wishes around confidentiality and boundaries.

What you can do as a manager: upon return and ongoing

Ensure they feel welcome. Whether it is meeting them at reception on their first day, speaking to them on a one-to-one basis at an arranged time on their first day back, decorating their desk with banners or having a welcome back lunch. If the employee works remotely, consider meeting them in person if it’s appropriate for a coffee and a catch up, as face to face interaction goes a long way. Ensure the employee feels that they have been missed and they are a valuable member of the team upon their return. Not sure what the best approach might be for them? Ask!

Arrange a return to work meeting. This might be included in your return to work policy or company handbook. Things to remember are that they should be held as soon as possible following the period of absence. This meeting typically includes welcoming the employee back, ensuring they are well enough to return to work, discussing the reason for absence (as appropriate) and providing an update on what has happened at work whilst they have been absent.

Be realistic about workloads. Don’t expect too much from your employees upon their return if they have been absent from work for a prolonged period. Understandably, it will take time for them to get up-to-speed and adjust. Also be aware that some employees might wish to prove themselves and offer to take on too much work. Ensure you outline yours and the organisation’s expectations of the employee who is returning, so they know that this has been considered. Set targets that are realistic and achievable and monitor the suitability of these over time.

Take the time. It might be advantageous to have regular, informal chats about how things are going; an opportunity to discuss progress or any difficulties that have arisen without a formal and possibly intimidating meeting.

However, make sure that, at the very least, the following steps are taken…

Arrange a follow up meeting. This should take place once the employee has settled back into their routine, so they don’t think they’ve been left to get on with their return without support. Organise a meeting when appropriate to see how they are doing; their thoughts and feelings about their adjustment back into the workplace and how they are finding their work.

Don’t treat particular returns like special cases. Provide feedback in the way you would with other employees. Be honest, positive and constructive.

Be flexible and consider other support. Would it be helpful for the employee to have support from someone other than their manager? Examples might include a mentoring, coaching or buddying scheme; opening up channels for the employee to explore their experience and find solutions with other members of the team. Don’t forget there are also other avenues for support the employee may benefit from accessing, such as their Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Are there Mental Health First Aiders in the team, and is the employee aware of them?

Don’t make assumptions. As managers we need to speak to the employee about the things we might try and mitigate, which can actually be unhelpful for the employee returning and your relationship. Making assumptions regarding their capacity to cope with workloads or shrouding their absence in secrecy, which might be an attempt to protect the employee, can actually be damaging. As suggested previously, if you aren’t sure what whether you are assuming something, just ask them!

Does the team need more support? Has it become apparent that the team might need further support regarding knowledge, skills or resources? Areas such as looking after themselves, e.g. physical or mental health, communication skills (having difficult or sensitive conversations), getting an understanding of mental health conditions or understanding each other better. Consider signposting to further reading, workplace webinars, seminars or workshops. It might be something to approach your HR department about. Don’t forget about yourself in this, too; if you think there is room for improvement; take some action and help yourself, your team and organisation to support each other better.

Top tips

  • Supporting an employee returning to work is key; ensuring a return to work that’s successful and the employee remains engaged within the workplace.
  • As a manager, refer to your Return to Work policy and make a plan of action. Keep a non-judgemental approach to each employee and work collaboratively with other individuals, teams or agencies and to ensure that the return to work is realistic and well supported.
  • Welcome the employee back to work and adjust their workload accordingly so their return is not overwhelming. Continue to check in with the employee and don’t assume the return to work means that they no longer need support. 

As managers, there can be a lot of pressure on your shoulders regarding performance and your employees reaching targets. Focusing on looking after the person and their needs first, means they are more likely to get back to working well sooner. Don’t forget, you don’t need to have all the answers all the time, just the knowledge of where to go to get it if you need it. Take some time to check out the references and links here.


Health at Work: An Independent Review of Sickness Absence

Health and Safety Executive: Working together to prevent sickness absence becoming job loss

Healthy and Safety Executive: Line Managers’ Resource

MHFA England: MHFA Line Managers’ Resource

Mental Health at Work

HSE: Managing Sick Leave and Return to Work

ACAS: Absence from Work

MIND: How to be Mentally Healthy at Work

NHS: Going back to work after Mental Health Issues