Return To Work Interviews

I am often contacted by members of staff and asked for my opinions with regard to return to work (RTW) interviews, the process and what, in my humble opinion should be taking place. In a nutshell there are numerous reasons and justifications for the RTW interview but to avoid the laborious task of spelling out every chapter, section, sub section or paragraph, it is important to look at the overall situation and to consider the possible knock on effects if we did not carry out the RTW interview robustly.

When an employee returns to work following an absence due to illness or injury ( or even a sabbatical) there are numerous “black holes” that are waiting to snare us at a later date if we fail to conduct the RTW interviews appropriately and that includes ensuring they are carried out in a timely manner. So, having laid the groundworks, let’s look at what should happen in an ideal environment.

The manager needs to establish if the employee is actually “fully fit” or if there are reasons why a “phased” return to work is being conducted which is designed to gradually integrate the employee back into their primary role.

The manager needs to establish if the employee has got any outstanding treatment such GP / Physio or specialist consultant appointments in the pipeline so that arrangements are made to enable the employee to attend these appointments, thereby ensuring that these necessary and much sought after appointments are not missed. We are acutely aware of the pressures which the NHS is under and the number of missed appointments is astronomical; another reason for lengthy waiting lists.

The manager needs to establish of the employee is currently on any medication that might have an impact on their ability to safely carry out their work. I do not consider it is necessary for the manager to know exactly what medicine the employee is taking, suffice it to know if it will affect their work or not.

The manager should also ensure that if there have been any changes to the workplace machinery & equipment, policies or procedures during the period that the employee has been absent, that these changes are made known to the employee. Where there are changes to written documents that directly affect the work of the employee or that could have detrimental effects if the changes are not notified to the employee, the manager should ensure that the employee is provided adequate time to read the documents. Having said all this, the employee is also expected to contribute to the RTW interview.

The employee should ensure that if there are any restrictions or limitations which could have impact on their ability to carry out all the tasks of their role, that the manager is informed of these restrictions during the RTW interview so that the manager is not placed in the position whereby the employee is tasked with something they are not yet capable of carrying out. It’s a two way thing.

The employee should provide the manager with a list of any dates on which follow-up treatment or assessments have been arranged as part of their return to work. By doing this, the manager and scheduling staff can avoid planning duties that would clash with the planned treatment / assessments.

I am aware that many employees consider their health and any medication they are taking to be private and confidential; which is understandable. However, without actually naming the medication (which might be used for something totally random or obscure) the employee, having  been prescribed the medication, been given advice by their GP or Consultant about the medication, and read the manufacturers information sheet that accompanies the medication… will know if there are side effects that may affect their ability to work safely.  The employee needs to inform their manager if the medication is likely to cause for example drowsiness, lethargy or sudden sprints to the washroom. Pre warned is pre-armed.

The RTW interview involves two people and as such both parties should take an active part. There is no reason why an employee could not ask the manager if there have been any changes in their workplace or changes in policies or procedures during their absence. Being actively involved in the RTW interview ensures that the employee is enabled to provide the manager with the information which could prevent the employee from aggravating or worsening the recent cause for sickness absence which in turn could see further bouts of absence that otherwise could have been avoided. This is particularly relevant if the employee has been receiving physiotherapy and advised to have a staged or phased return to work. The employee will have a better understanding of what physical activity they can undertake or are allowed to undertake, and this is the golden opportunity for the employee to ensure that the manager is made aware.

In an ideal world the RTW interview will be arranged to take place on a date prior to the employee recommencing duty. With adequate notice and forward planning it provides both parties with ample time for preparation. The manager can check what changes have been made during the employee’s absence and make arrangements for the employee to have any training, instruction or guidance with regard to these changes. Similarly, if there have been any document changes, these can be prepared for the employee to read them. From the employees point of view, having adequate notice of when the RTW meeting will take place means they can prepare for the meeting by drawing up a list of questions they may wish to ask, make a note of any limitations / restrictions and bullet point any medicinal side effects .

The Return To Work interview should be conducted in private, away from distractions and that includes both parties switching off their phones so that they can focus on the meeting. It should be conducted in a relaxed manner, not rushed and if necessary both parties should be encouraged to make notes of anything which comes to light, such as changes in the work place or restrictions in fitness. Before the RTW meeting is concluded, both parties should be encouraged to ask any further questions or to cover any relevant points which they need clarifying. This is an important meeting and therefore essential that all the salient points are covered thoroughly and not skimped over.

My  view of the Return To Work interview stems from the Japanese philosophy that welcoming the employee back into the family business after sickness absence and letting the employee know how much the rest of the family have missed them, creates a better relationship between employee and the business. They also have a lot less absences due to sickness.

Jeff Pittman

2 November 2015