Return to Work Interviews: How & Why
9th April 2015
Does your company conduct return to work interviews when a member of staff has been off sick? A surprising number don’t, even though they’ll have been paying the member of staff while they were away from the workplace.
There are a number of excuses you might put forward for not doing Return to Work interviews. Some are more reasonable than others. They include the following:
- “I trust my employees and don’t want to interrogate them.”
- “It uses up precious time when you and the employee might already have catching up to do.”
- “There’s nobody available to do the interview.”
- “We don’t have a set process in place.”
- “We didn’t do it for the last absentee, so we’re afraid of being inconsistent with employees.”
- “I don’t see the point.”
- “I’ve never heard of return to work interviews.”
- “We just get the employee to fill in a form.”
Several of the above reasons indicate a misunderstanding of the nature of return to work interviews. They should not be confrontational or accusatory, and should assume the employee was indeed ill. The point is not to undermine the employee’s argument or make him or her slip up and admit they had a hangover; it’s to have a record of the sickness, acknowledge that you’ve taken the time to note it and to identify any underlying problems.
As for wasting time, if you have a set form that you go through with the employee, it’s simply a case of working through it; most RtW interviews take no longer than ten minutes to complete.
The argument that it’s showing inconsistency is only true if you have a haphazard approach to RtW interviews. Put your policy in place and make sure you do it for every single absence, and the argument will become null and void. You have to start sometime.
Why have Return to Work Interviews?
Before we can talk about how to do return to work interviews, let’s just touch on why we do them.
First, they are necessary for good housekeeping in your workplace. They are just one of the things that companies should do to keep track on the comings and goings of employees. While you’ll probably have records of absences elsewhere, it’s shallow data, almost a 0 instead of a 1 for each day off, with no background information. The interview will flesh it out a little, let you see what was behind the absence. This is important because after a while you might start to see trends. Say you start getting a lot of back pain or headaches – they could indicate a problem with seating, lifting or lighting, for example. Remedying these issues could save you lots of absences – not to mention legal action.
From a motivational point of view, there’s evidence that companies that impose RtW interviews experience a reduction in sickness absence. There are a few reasons this could be case. First, it shows that you are taking absence seriously; that your company is taking some sort of action on absence. But second, there’s a “fear factor” involved – some employees who might in the past have taken the odd day off when they simply couldn’t be bothered to come to work might be wary of being “found out” if they slip up in the interview by contradicting their original cover story.
Companies don’t demand doctors’ fit notes if the absence is for seven days or fewer, so it’s good to have a record of why the employee was off – you can judge whether the reason seems justifiable or not.
Finally, at the other end of the scale, the issue of presenteeism comes into play. Presenteeism is where people come to work when they really should be off sick (we’ve written about it here). It can occur when employees who have been off sick start to worry that they have been off too long, and come back before they’re really ready to do so. A sensitive Return to Work interview can make sure that this isn’t the case and offer reassurance that the employee’s job is not at risk because they have caught the flu.
Good Practice with RTW Interviews
To maintain good practice in return to work interviews, you must:
- be prepared
- be swift
- observe consistency
- be accurate
- show sensitivity
- keep it official
As soon as you discover an employee is absent, start planning for their return-to-work interview. Obviously you won’t know what day they will be coming back, but preparing the form on first notification of absence will make sure you’re ready to go when they return.
Get the interview going as soon as possible after the employee returns. They might have vital tasks to perform when they get back, from safety tasks to briefing subordinates or being briefed if there’s a handover procedure; but try and get the interview done as soon as is practicable so they can answer the questions while the absence is fresh in their mind. Waiting a week won’t do.
The rule applies to everyone. If anyone takes time off sick, they must have the interview with the same conditions as everyone else. Letting some employees get away with it can lead to disgruntlement, accusations of favouritism or even tribunals.
Listen to what the employee says and take accurate notes on why they have had time off. What they say is important and having a record of it could save you trouble later down the line.
Employees’ personal medical information is confidential and you have a duty to protect it. Conduct interviews in a private space where no other employees or visitors can hear what is being said. Also, you need to keep the interview notes in a safe, secure place (if on paper) or in a secure digital location. Treat the interview itself sensitively, too. Don’t pressure employees into revealing things they’re uncomfortable with.
Keep things official
Make sure both the interviewer and the interviewee sign the RtW sheet to ensure they do not try to contradict themselves at a later date.
Return to work interviews can be a painless experience if you have a plan in place and you stick to it. There’s a huge plus side in that it gives you usable data that can help your health and safety policies, and since they can help to reduce frivolous absences, the small amount of time spent on them will more than cover itself.