The return to work interview is one of those meetings that’s all too tempting to skip over.
Chances are you’re more stretched than usual as a result of your employee’s absence and you’re keen for them to get stuck back into their work.
Back to work interviews can bring a lot of benefits, though. We’ll run through them in this post and share some tips on how to get the most out of your interviews.
Jump down for:
- What is a return to work interview?
- Benefits of holding return to work interviews
- Back to work interviews and the law
- When should a return to work interview be carried out?
- Return to work interview questions
- How to hold an effective return to work interview
- Return to work interviews after long-term sickness
What is a return to work interview?
A return to work interview is a short, informal meeting held with an employee on their return to work after an absence.
We recommend that they follow a consistent format, with the employee and their manager working through a return to work form together.
Return to work interviews are most valuable if they’re held by an employee’s line manager, and should occur after every absence, regardless of how long the employee was off for or the reason they’ve provided for their absence.
There are three main reasons to hold a back to work interview:
- To reduce the level of absence in the organisation
- To ensure the individual employee is fit to return to work
- To pick up on any concerns or underlying health conditions, enabling them to be addressed.
Benefits of holding return to work interviews
Far from a box-ticking exercise, return to work interviews bring considerable benefits. Perhaps the most important benefit to the organisation is that they should deter any sickness absences that are not genuine and reduce the level of absence overall.
They can also be used to:
- Confirm that the employee is well enough to be at work
- Show employees that you have noticed their absence and that they were missed
- Deter any sickness absences that are not genuine
- Ensure the employee is told about any work-related updates they may have missed during their absence
- Identify any patterns or trends occurring in their absences
- Identify any underlying conditions or disabilities, and whether there are any steps you can take as an employer to prevent future absences of a similar nature, and/or any reasonable adjustments that are required
- Detect whether anything work-related might be triggering the absence, such as work-related stress
- Ensure your records are accurate and agreed by the employee, which will help if you start any formal absence management and will also provide accurate reporting data
- If relevant, ensure staff are aware if they are approaching, or have hit, a trigger point for formal absence management.
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Is a back to work interview a legal requirement?
Return to work interviews are not a legal requirement, but they are highly recommended due to the benefits they bring.
It’s still important to keep employment law basics in mind when holding return to work interviews, though.
Make sure you treat everyone fairly and equally to protect yourself from potential claims of discrimination or unfair treatment. This means asking everyone the same set of questions, which is where a return to work form comes in handy.
If an employee is rarely off sick and well-trusted, it’s very tempting not to bother with a return to work interview. But if you only hold interviews for certain employees, you run the risk of accusations of bullying and unfair treatment.
You also need to make sure you treat your notes from the meeting as sensitive data and store them in line with GDPR. Storing this information digitally, behind password protection, is the ideal option here. With HR software, like ours, you can complete a return to work form directly on the system, and save it, for easy access, within an employee’s file.
When should a return to work interview be carried out?
You should try to carry out your return to work interviews as soon as you can after your employee has returned, ideally the first shift back.
Remember, you first want to confirm they’re well enough to be in work, so it’s best to find this out as soon as possible, in case it’s apparent they shouldn’t be at work.
Return to work interview time limits
Employers sometimes wonder if there’s a time limit on how long they have to conduct a return to work interview after an employee’s return.
There are no set rules around this, but as previously mentioned, the sooner you can check they’re well enough to be in work the better.
It’s also sensible to try and be as consistent as possible. If you follow up with some people straight away, but leave it days to check in with others, you might appear unfair in your treatment.
Return to work interview questions
The following questions will help you to get the information you need from your employee regarding their absence.
It’s important not to make them feel too pressured to answer these questions to a level of detail that makes them uncomfortable. You want your employee to come out of the interview feeling reassured and supported, not vulnerable and intimidated.
Questions to ask:
- How are you feeling now?
- Are you well enough to be back in work?
- Did you see your GP or a pharmacist?
- Have you been given any medication and are there any side effects I should be aware of?
- Is this an ongoing or recurring condition?
- Has anything work-related contributed to your absence?
- Are there any adjustments that could help with your attendance?
- Ask if they have any questions.
Information to provide:
- details of any information that they have missed due to their absence
- whether or not they have hit an absence trigger, and if so, what next steps will be
- how their absence will be paid
How to hold an effective return to work interview
Follow these steps to get the most out of your return to work interviews:
- First things first, make sure you hold the interview in a private room. The conversation you’ll be having touches on personal issues that should be dealt with sensitively.
- Follow the same format for every return to work interview. Having a return to work form to work through is helpful here.
- Try not to put pressure on the employee or make them feel uncomfortable. They’re under no obligation to reveal details about their absence they may not wish to.
- Always avoid challenging the validity of their absence unless you have very solid evidence to indicate that the reason they have provided is inaccurate. This would be a disciplinary matter.
- Although ‘interview’ makes things sound formal, these meetings can often take the form of a more casual 5-minute chat. So long as there is consistency in the questions covered. By making things feel more informal, you’ll help to put the employee at ease and make it easier for them to share details with you about how you might be able to support their return to work.
- Record notes of the entire conversation carefully and make sure both you and your employee sign them, to avoid any disputes over the information further down the line.
- Store these notes securely, in line with data protection regulations.
Return to work interviews after long-term sickness
Coming back to work after a long-term sickness, especially if the individual is still compromised by their illness, is challenging and stressful.
They might be feeling less confident in their abilities to carry out their job, or anxious about how they’ll fit back into the organisation, or about any change that might have occurred in their absence. So it’s important you use the return to work interview to help them feel supported and to warmly welcome them back.
It’s likely that you’ll already have had a number of discussions with the employee during the course of their absence, so will already know the answers to the majority of your standard return to work questions.
You should still hold an interview, however, to confirm any details that have been agreed regarding reasonable adjustments, provide the employee with an opportunity to express any concerns and to bring them up to speed on any changes they might need to be aware of.
It’s also a good idea to continue to check in with your employee during their first few weeks back to make sure they feel as though they are coping and that any reasonable adjustments are adequate.
To sum up
Return to work interviews shouldn’t be overlooked as they serve a range of benefits.
They don’t have to feel too formal, either. So long as you’re consistent, you can approach them as a fairly informal chat, providing your employee with a positive experience of returning to work and helping them to feel valued.
Just don’t forget that the information you’ll be discussing is confidential, and you must take care to securely store your notes from the meeting.
HR Software can help
Our HR software contains a digital return to work form, making it quick and easy to capture the information you need to know and save it securely within your employee’s digital file. It’ll also help you to stay consistent in your approach by reminding you of the need to file return to work forms.
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