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Return to work interviews

Excellent opportunity to explore, on a one-to-one basis, the actual reasons for absence

Gulf News

Having now been back in the Emirates for the past week, I have had meetings with a number of Human Resource and Occupational Health directors from organisations both large and medium-sized, in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. Some are offering an excellent HR service to their employees but I was surprised that none of them were including a ‘return to work’ interview within their procedures, after an employee absence.

Now, we are not just talking about an employee being off-work with long-term sickness, I am also including short-term absence as well and I would expect management to be trained to conduct such an interview.

I am talking about the manager making time to sit with his/her team member to find out why they were off work. Of course, it could be as simple as a common cold but in many cases, it is often an issue either inside or outside of work that is the problem and that still remains unresolved, so that the sooner the manager determines the real reason for the absence, the sooner will they get their employee fully back to work with 100% efficiency.

At this point, I can hear you say that you don’t want to intrude into people’s lives but this is not intruding, this is specifically within the role of the manager. They are paid to manage their team and they need to know whether it is the workload that is an issue, if there is a training issue, if there is a bullying issue or if this is a personal domestic issue. Whichever it is, it needs to be resolved.

In some companies, the return to work interview is conducted by HR but this is not my favoured approach as they may well not know enough about the individual within his/her department whereas the manager [one would hope] would do so.

Return to work interviews are an integral part of managing sickness absence and present an excellent opportunity to explore, on a one-to-one basis, the actual reasons for absence, and to offer employees support, where appropriate. Of course, it may well be that absence is not actually caused through ill-health, but is merely a mechanism for taking time-off to deal with pressing personal problems.

In fact, recent statistics from the UK Department for Work and Pensions, Fit for Work Service pilots showed that nearly three-quarters of staff who are absent from work require adjustments to their workplace role in order to return to employment successfully. It found that half of those who returned to work with support from the pilot service, reported changed hours of work, while two-fifths also reported changed duties and reduced workloads, all of which proved beneficial.

So let me take you through a Return to Work Interview Plan

1. Plan the interview at a mutually convenient time and place.

2. Conduct the interview in private, to ensure confidentiality.

3. Set boundaries and agree a timeframe.

4. Allow enough time for the employee to fully explain his/her situation.

5. Agree a ‘return to work’ plan on the first day of return so that the employee is not overwhelmed with work. This is especially important when the employee is returning from a period of long-term absence.

6. Make a written record of the interview for future reference.

Where it is apparent that there is an ongoing health problem, there may be the opportunity for the organisation to offer support to employees, either via its Occupational Health department or through other healthcare resources.

It is vital that whoever is conducting these ‘RTW’ interviews is trained in listening skills and the interview is not seen as intimidating in any shape or form.

This is a tool that is for the benefit of everyone concerned, however, if the employee appreciates that they will have to sit down with their manager to talk through their absence, it may even make them think twice about taking time-off in the first place.

Of course, actual sickness cannot be avoided and I am not disputing this. But it may weed out some of those who are taking time off unnecessarily.

And that can only be good both for your absenteeism records and medical statistics!

Key points:

Return to Work interviews are valuable

They are beneficial to both the organisation and the individual

They reduce lower absenteeism from all causes

(The author is a BBC guest-broadcaster and motivational speaker. She is CEO of an international stress management and employee wellbeing consultancy based in London. Contact the consultancy for proven stress strategies: www.carolespiersgroup.co.uk)

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