Evidence suggests that when a person is off work due to sickness for an extended period (four weeks or more) they face increased and increasing difficulties getting back to work and their normal way of life. The difficulties are many and varied and will depend on the individual employee and the nature of the illness from which they have been suffering, but the challenges may include:
- Loss of confidence. So much about succeeding and achieving at work is about self-confidence. A break from work can lead to people questioning their own abilities, how they will be received by colleagues when they get back to work, or whether they are able to resume the same stressful and demanding roles and responsibilities, which may potentially have contributed to their ill health in the first place.
- Isolation and disconnection from the world of work. People who have been off work for an extended period may feel that their colleagues are carrying on perfectly well without them or that the workplace dynamic has changed in their absence. Colleagues may talk to them about work but they may feel that their absence has given them a change of perspective and priorities, and ‘office politics’ might not seem so relevant to them anymore.
- Perceived loss of skills. A lot can change in a short space of time, including technology or changes to working practices. People who have been off work for a while may feel that the world of work has moved on without them.
- Physical frailties. Recovery can be slow after many long-term illnesses so workers might be concerned about struggling with the physical aspects of their old job. Equally, those in sedentary jobs might require adjustments to be made to their workstation if they are suffering from a musculoskeletal disorder, or they might feel unable to work a full and demanding week, or tackle the daily commute.
Tips for employers on making the return to work process a success
There is an increasing awareness of:
- the importance of good health among the workforce and the need to protect workers’ health and safety;
- the contribution paid by a structured return to work process to help reintegrate people successfully after a period of illness.
Engage employees by listening to their issues and addressing them.
Keep employees in the loop. Keep in contact with employees whilst they are on sick leave. Good communication employees will help them return to work.
Make reasonable adjustments. Offer flexible hours or part-time working in the short term, or change tasks to reduce stress and workload. Review workstations or working environments.
Get the timing right. Begin the return to work planning at the optimum time (after about three to four weeks). Beginning the process too early may risk adding to employees’ stress, but getting started too late could make it difficult to address the issues that are making it difficult for employees to return.
Be realistic. Sometimes employees may simply not be able to return to work because of the nature of their illness.
Producing a Return to Work Plan
Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Employed people who have been off work due to illness for four weeks or more can be referred for a telephone assessment with a Fit for Work case manager in order to identify all the obstacles preventing the person from returning to work. The Fit for Work case manager can also provide recommendations about how the obstacles can be addressed. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).
Anyone referred to Fit for Work receives a Return to Work Plan proposing a return to work schedule (if a return to work is deemed appropriate and feasible), along with suggestions about any workplace adjustments that will be required to support a person in their return. The Return to Work Plan offers a thoughtful and considered approach to overcoming the barriers to returning to work and offers the basis for a structured and open discussion around positive solutions. A sample Return to Work Plan from Fit for Work can be found in the employer toolkit.
The Return to Work Plan would cover the following aspects:
- A summary of the issues/obstacles that are making it difficult for employees to return to work (e.g. stress leading to anxiety).
- Recommendations and solutions to help overcome the issues (e.g. counselling).
- Adjustments to work (e.g. a short-term change of responsibilities) and the timescales for which these adjustments are likely to be necessary.
- Signposting to independent agencies that could provide support (e.g. Mind).
- Possible interventions (e.g. physiotherapy, counselling) which could help employees return to work more quickly and save employers money in the long-term. It will contain the same information as a Statement of Fitness for Work or ‘fit note’, and can be used as evidence by employers instead of a GP-issued fit note when considering entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay. If the individual can’t return within three months, then a further fit note will be required at that time from their GP.
- Any agreed case management touch points, which may be necessary in order to check the employee’s progress.
It will contain the same information as a Statement of Fitness for Work or ‘fit note’, and can be used as evidence by employers instead of a GP-issued fit note when considering entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay. If the individual can’t return within three months, then a further fit note will be required at that time from their GP.