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How to handle phased returns

Suzanne Monk

The Government is encouraging phased return-to-work plans for the growing number of people who have been absent due to health issues. Suzanne Monk, Clinical Governance Officer at workplace-absence management specialist FirstCare, gives her advice on how you can sensitively manage an area that can prove to be a minefield

Damian Green, the Work and Pensions Secretary, recently unveiled a review of statutory sick pay to encourage "phased" returns. The review is part of a wider Government objective to get more sick and disabled people back into work.      

Under the current system, workers claiming sick pay lose their right to claim for the benefit as soon as they return to work. However, Green is advocating a more flexible approach, allowing disabled people to keep their benefits until they return to full-time work.      

It’s hugely encouraging that the Government is both recognising the positive impact that the workplace can have on health and wellbeing. The review also recognises that more needs to be done to support employers to put in place successful plans.      

Employers play a crucial role in implementing successful return-to-work plans, and supporting employees back into the workplace. For a phased plan to be effective, a number of elements must be in place, all intrinsically linked:

Manager awareness

Employers must ensure managers are familiar with the process of conducting return-to-work interviews and what the organisation is trying to achieve by conducting them. As line managers play such an important role in ensuring these plans are effective, they need to understand the rationale behind them and how they can add value.   

Managers must also be familiar with their companies’ absence policy in order to make the appropriate recommendations following an initial return-to-work interview.  Formal or informal action may need to be taken with the employee, like making referrals to support services, such as occupational health.      

Thorough preparation

Phased return-to-work plans are most effective when managers are fully prepared. During an initial interview, managers should have their absence records to hand, and have questions for the employee prepared in advance.      

A tailored approach

Employees may feel anxious, concerned or even embarrassed and fearful about the sickness they have had and its impact on their contribution to the workplace. As a result, the process of returning to work can be very emotive affairs for employees. Guidance therefore needs to be given to managers on the best way to conduct the meeting.     

A person who’s been off sick may also require a phased return to work with reduced working hours, or changes may need to be made to their physical environment, such as improved disability access.      

Employers should encourage managers to be sensitive to any changes required and be mindful that employees will need time to adjust to being back at work.       

Access to support services

Return-to-work interviews present a great opportunity for line managers to introduce employees to support services, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), physiotherapy, smoking-cessation classes, and other health and wellbeing services. Line managers should familiarise themselves with the support options available so they can recommend them to staff.     

While the Government’s review of statutory sick pay is welcome, currently, much of the responsibility for ensuring a phased return to work is successful falls to employers. What might seem like a time-consuming process is more simple than you might think as long as certain elements are in place. Managers must be aware of the objectives of the process, and familiar with the companies’ absence policy and preparation.

Finally, it’s important that relevant support services are clearly signposted for the employee and uptake of these encouraged.                  

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