Returning to work after a long illness can be a daunting prospect, sometimes compounded by a loss of confidence and potentially hampered by a slow recovery after medical treatment.
But there is an increasing awareness that a swift and well-supported return to the workplace (and back to a normal routine) can aid a person’s full recovery and ensure their mental wellbeing.
The fit note, which replaced the sick note in 2010, focuses on what people can do rather that what they can’t. The idea behind the fit note is that individuals do not always need to be fully recovered to go back to work, and in fact it can often help recovery to return to work. The fit note allows the doctor to make recommendations about adjustments that could be made to your work to allow employees to return sooner than would otherwise be the case. One of these recommendations could be for a phased return to work.
The benefits are twofold:
- the employer gains the skills and experience of their member of staff;
- the employee can benefit financially and emotionally from being back at work.
With our ageing population, some experts believe that more people will be faced with returning to work after an illness and that employers need to act to avoid losing some of their most experienced and valuable staff prematurely.
The figures for long-term sickness make for difficult reading. Sickness absence is estimated to cost the UK economy around £15 billion per year. According to Dame Carol Black’s 2008 report (‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’), long-term sickness – defined as an absence that lasts longer than four weeks – accounted for up to 75% of the total sickness absence costs in 2008, and 40 percent of the total working time lost, despite only making up 5 per cent of total absence.
Common causes of long-term work absence absence are back ache, stress, anxiety and depression, coronary heart-disease and cancer. In many cases, with care and consideration, employees can return to the workplace and continue to make an important contribution to an organisation or business despite their health issues.
Meaning of the term ‘phased return to work’
The term ‘phased return to work’ embraces the idea of returning to work gradually, in stages, before an employee can complete all of their normal tasks and/or is able to work all their allotted hours and days. It includes any level of work, from a couple of hours, to a few days a week, but relies on an agreement between the employer and employee. Each employee’s situation is different, so solutions need to be flexible and well planned, including regular reviews of the arrangement and an agreed date to return to their normal hours/duties.
An ideal phased return to work should include:
- A gradual build up towards the employee’s usual hours and duties that begins with hours of work that are manageable for the employee at the current stage of their recovery.
- A timeframe that may be as little as one week, and not usually more than 4-6 weeks, unless the employee has a condition with long-term fatigue issues.
- Consideration of work timings that may support a return to work where there is some flexibility, for example hours that allow an employee to avoid a commute in rush hour traffic.
- Duties during the phased return that are beneficial to the organisation but that allow the employee to be confident in their return (an example of this may be removing the requirement for business travel initially, or direct customer facing work depending upon the health issues).
- Review timeframes so that the line manager and employee can adjust, where necessary, or ensure all is on track.
Benefits of a phased return
Both employers and employees will benefit from a planned and agreed phased return to work.
Employers benefit in the following ways:
- An earlier return reduces costs to the employer by reducing the need for someone else to cover the work.
- Nurturing employees and making them feel valued increases staff retention and reduces recruitment costs.
- An organisation’s treatment of its employees while off sick and returning to work can shape the way they and others regard the company. Good treatment will create a positive culture and boost morale.
- Returning to work in a phased way reduces the likelihood of employees not returning at all, thereby saving the need to recruit and train a new staff member.
- With an ageing population, employers need to look at ways to encourage and enable staff to return to work after illness and avoid losing them to early retirement.
Employees also benefit from a phased return to work:
- In general, being in work is good for health and wellbeing and brings financial security. Failure to return to work can lead to them dropping out of work or taking early retirement and exclude people from working life in the long term.
- Returning to work brings routine and a sense of normality after illness. It increases self-respect, and boosts mental health and social inclusion.
- A good return to work process could increase a person’s speed of recovery and prevent potential relapses or complications resulting from continuing to be off work.
Key points when considering a phased return
Problems may occur with a phased return to work if it is not arranged collaboratively and with the full agreement of everyone involved.
Key points for employers:
- A phased return to work is not a quick fix and will involve extra admin and meetings, which can put greater pressure on the line manager. Phased return plans need to be carefully considered and agreed and need to take into account all relevant legislation (e.g. health and safety requirements).
- A person’s recovery may be slower than expected, which may cause setbacks.
- Some jobs lend themselves more easily to phased return to work.
- Developing a sensible return to work plan can be difficult without an understanding and awareness of occupational health issues and knowledge of broaching potentially difficult topics about a person’s mental or physical health. (The Fit for Work advisors can help.)
Key points for employees:
- If the phased return to work process isn’t properly managed, employees may feel pressurised into agreeing a plan that they don’t believe to be realistic.
- An unexpectedly slow recovery may impede the return to work process.
Advice to employers
Employers are being increasingly encouraged to be open-minded about the potential benefits of an employee returning to work early, on reduced hours or changed duties. But they need to be aware that the way a member of staff is treated while they are off work through illness will have a profound effect on how they view the company, their colleagues and, ultimately, how successfully they return to work.
Research has found that the actions and attitudes of the line manager can be crucial to a person’s successful return. Line managers can take a number of steps to improve the return to work process, including:
- keeping in contact with absent employees whilst they are off work in order to keep them updated on the events at work;
- meeting with absence employees before they return to work draw up a plan for their gradual return. This plan should stipulate what their duties will be and how their hours will increase over time;
- being flexible with regards to duties and hours and adapting quickly if recovery turns out to be slower than expected;
- remaining positive, flexible and understanding.
There are quite specific rules that relate to the payment/eligibility of statutory sick pay (SSP) during a phased return.
For guidance about work-related health issues, employers can call the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh), or visit the Fit for Work website. Those in Scotland can call 0800 019 2211 (or visit fitforworkscotland.scot).
Advice to employees
Employees should understand their rights with regards to retaining their employment throughout an extended period of illness and should remain flexible and give themselves time to recover at a pace that suits them. To maintain good relations with employers, it’s important to communicate openly with managers about health issues, treatment, recovery and ambitions for returning to work.
For support and information about making a phased return to work, contact the Fit For Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English), 0800 032 6233 (Welsh) or 0800 019 2211 (Scotland). Useful resources about work-related health issues can also be found on the Fit for Work website (or fitforworkscotland.scot).
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2015 and was updated in December 2016 for accuracy.