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Chasing sickness: Getting the return to work interview right

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As businesses try to combat the damaging effects of rising rates of employee absenteeism, return to work interviews are taking a prominent place in the process. Training consultant Nik Kellingley explains how to make this work for your organisation.


Does the rising tide of absenteeism threaten to wash away the humble British business? Probably not, but many organisations face increasing issues with getting their employees to actually turn in for an honest day's work. While there is speculation as to whether this absence actually has a genuine impact on the bottom line or not, a responsible employer needs to investigate the reasons for absence before they can take action to remedy the situation or to reproach the employee for unacceptable behaviour.

One of the simplest measures available to businesses to address absence issues is the return to work interview. A well structured return to work interview can enable employees to speak about any issues both in and out of work that are interfering with their ability to attend; can give the employer a chance to raise concerns about specific patterns in absence or the possibility of the employee "swinging the lead" and provides the opportunity for any paperwork relating to sick pay to be completed and processed efficiently.

Who should conduct the interview?
Usually the line manager will conduct the return to work interview as soon as the absent employee returns to work. A sensible policy on such interviews will also allow for the intervention of an alternative manager or a member of HR to conduct the interview, either in the absence of the line manager or if necessary to investigate the line manager’s part in the absence itself.

What format should the interview take?
The interviewer should welcome the person back to work and explain that the purpose of the interview is to bring them up to date with any events that are related to their work that they missed during their absence, and to identify any help and support that can be given to prevent a reoccurrence of the absence.

The salient points of the interview should be recorded, usually on a standard template, and signed by both parties at the termination of the interview.

The interviewer should then ask the reason behind the absence, when the illness occurred, when the interviewee recovered, whether they sought medical attention, if medication was prescribed, whether that medication could have any impact on their capacity to work and if there is any possibility of the sickness recurring.

The interviewer should then try to determine whether any factors at work played a part in the absence and offer help and support to overcome these issues. This is particularly true if this absence follows previous patterns; questions such as "looking back through your recent absences, you have been off sick every Monday for the last month, is there something specific that occurs during your weekend or late in your work week that might cause this and is there anything we can do to help reduce the risk of this?" might be appropriate.

After this has been addressed, the interviewer should update the individual on anything they need to know regarding their role, for example communications from important clients, meetings arranged, highlights from team briefings etc.

Finally, the interview should conclude by again welcoming the person back and offering any additional support that they feel is appropriate.

After the interview
The return to work interview is not a disciplinary proceeding and care should be taken when using information gathered at this stage for disciplinary. In particular consultation should be sought as appropriate with an occupational health advisor, and if appropriate the individual's medical practitioner and due regard needs to be paid to the Disability Discrimination laws before any action is taken.

Used correctly, the return to work interview can be an invaluable tool for identifying areas within the individual's work life that are causing absence and working to address the issues found. It does not have to culminate in disciplinary action and there should be flexibility in your absence management policies to accommodate and support valued members of staff as well as for dealing with those who "just can't be bothered".

To get the process right for your organisation, seek feedback from staff and management on the effectiveness of the interview and adjust the process according to your needs.

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