Return To Work Meetings

Minor Illnesses Account For Most Short-term Absence From Work

Return To Work meetings gives you the chance to welcome your employee back to work, confirm that their record of absence is correct, and enables them to raise any remaining health or other issues that need addressing with your support. The main thing to remember during a return to work meeting is to listen well and be objective.

This page was first published on 16 January 2012. The last update was on 9 January 2022.

The very fact that such a procedure is carried out will tend to deter casual absences, because employees will know that monitoring of absences is taken seriously and that they will have to account to their manager each time they are absent.

Return to work meetings are a vital first stage in dealing with any kind of sickness or unauthorised absence because it is important to:-

  • To demonstrate that you value the person

    All too often people return to work with a sense that it didn’t matter that they had been off, ‘who cares anyway’, and sometimes it might make the difference between staying off work for another day or coming back. So, it’s important to welcome the person back, and update them on the work they may have missed, so that they can get on with their job effectively.

  • To show your personal concern for their state of health

    It is never enough to just say, ‘hello are you better’ even if its someone’s first sickness absence or they have not been off for some time. Everyone deserves the opportunity to talk to you in private to discuss issues relating to their health or any other issue which may be contributing to them taking time off. In this way you will be able to discuss other support if it is necessary.

    You will need to bear in mind that staff may find it difficult to talk about medial issues and you may need to offer them the opportunity to talk to another manager or someone from HR.

    Always give an opportunity for the person to talk by asking if there is anything else they wish to discuss.

    You may also be able to check out whether the person is actually fit enough to come back to work and to get an idea of any changes to their general health. It could be that there is an underlying disability that you are not aware of.

    But you are not expected to question the diagnosis. You are not medically qualified to do so and while you may have your doubts about the reasons for absence you should concentrate on the management issues.

  • To show that you are determined to address each instance of absence as a management issue

    Sometimes you might feel reluctant to tackle the issue of sickness absence because it may cause unpopularity within the team. On the other hand, failure to deal with the issue could cause resentment.

    By talking to staff after each absence this will be seen as the usual procedure and all staff will be treated in the same way.

    The benefit to you as a manager is that you will be promoting an attendance culture within your team and it will help you address any underlying problems at an early stage, possibly preventing further absences.

  • To clarify the impact the persons absence has had

    Staff need to know that they are missed when they are not in work and that it makes a difference to the work and the people. Otherwise, it is quite easy to continue with the perception that being off doesn’t matter.

    But a careful balance has to be struck because we do not want anyone to feel guilty when they are ill or to come to work when they are not fit to do so.

  • To update sickness records and decide whether further action is required

    You must keep a record of your employees attendance. An attendance calendar is a simple way of doing this. The attendance calendar is a simple record of all absences such as holiday, sickness or other absence like authorised leave.

    Using an attendance calendar will help you identify whether there are any potential patterns in absence and whether you need to do anything else.

    You must also check and complete the self-certification or medical certificate(s) with the individual.

The main thing is to listen well and be objective.

A Return To Work Meeting can also be a good opportunity to offer help to an employee if you feel they are behaving differently because of pressure of some kind – domestic or work related. If they become distressed, stay focused, give them time to recover and reassure them that you are listening and want to help.

Staff may give a false reason for absence because they actually want time off for personal reasons or they do not wish to discuss the true reason, e.g. a serious illness that they are not ready to disclose, a pregnancy that they are not ready to disclose or the fact that they are being bullied or victimised.

Research suggests that the Return to Work Meeting is a good way of combating persistent absences as employees will be reluctant to take a day off without proper cause if they know that the absence will be noticed and will be inquired into by management on their return to work.

When Should The Return To Work Meeting Take Place?

To be effective the meeting should be held during the employee’s day of return or as soon as is reasonably practicable thereafter.

If you are not in work on the day your employee returns you could ask another manager, or your deputy, to meet with the returning employee.

The Meeting does not necessarily have to take place on a face to face basis and can be conducted by telephone or video call where you and your employee work at different locations. Arrange to visit them as soon as possible to discuss the absence and any concerns you might have.

How Long Will The Return To Work Take?

Every return-to-work meeting will be different depending on the individual, the circumstances giving rise to their absence, the frequency of their absence and any other factors.

Generally, the meeting will be short, taking about 10 – 15 minutes and should be recorded for future reference.

If the employee’s absence is beginning to cause concern a second meeting will be necessary.

Preparing For The Return To Work Meeting

It is essential that the meeting is properly prepared for and handled sensitively. You should arrange somewhere private for the discussion to safeguard any confidential issues that may arise. Everyone and their circumstances are different so even before you meet you should consider whether:

  • A stress related or other mental health illness is diagnosed, then you will need to think about any work-related factors which may be contributing to the stress such as workload or work relationships. Perhaps you need to review the person’s workload. You may also need to seek advice from the employees Doctor.
  • The illness is one which may be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.
  • The illness is a result of an accident or injury at work.
  • There are any tensions at work to do with colleagues or workload.
  • You are aware of any domestic problems.
  • There are any regular patterns in absence e.g. Monday, days immediately before or after a bank holiday weekend or school holidays.
  • Their performance when they are at work is satisfactory.
  • You have had any previous discussions about their attendance, if so what was decided?

The Right To Be Accompanied

The interview should be informal, so the right to be accompanied will not apply.

During The Return To Work Meeting

You should make it clear to the employee that the purpose of this type of Meeting is to monitor absences and that the Meeting is not part of the organisation’s disciplinary procedure. On the other hand, the Meeting should be more than just a casual chat and should be taken seriously and recorded.

The meeting should be welcoming and friendly, even if you are concerned about the level of absence. It is important that the individual recognises that they are valued and that they have been missed.

  • Use the completion of the attendance calendar and self-certification as a focus for the meeting. These records should be open, which may reduce any concern that you are keeping a secret record of an individual’s attendance.
  • Check the medical certificates cover the dates of absence and the reasons are consistent where multiple certificates are provided.
  • Check the employee is well enough to be back at work.
  • Check what steps the employee has taken to investigate the problem and what preventative action they have taken to prevent reoccurrence
  • Check whether the absence was work related.
  • If the illness is a protected characteristic respond appropriately. For example, you might provide information about flexible working or other adjustments to the way they work.
  • Ask if there are any underlying problems such as financial, domestic or social.
  • Ask them if there is anything they wish to discuss.
  • Give an update of the work and any social information that they may have missed.
  • Keep a record of the meeting in your management notes and offer a copy to the individual.

Avoid asking intrusive medical questions, instead seek to establish the basic cause of the absence.

The return-to-work meeting should end positively, therefore if you are starting to become concerned about the level of attendance say that you want to make a separate appointment to discuss this and arrange a mutually convenient time.

What If…

  • Misconduct
    Where it appears that there is no acceptable reason for an absence or the employee has not followed the correct absence notification procedure, the matter should be treated as a conduct issue and dealt with as a disciplinary matter.

  • The Sickness Is Not Genuine
    Where it appears that the reason for the absence is not genuine, i.e. a family member was ill not the employee, consider whether some other type of leave is appropriate such as holiday or unpaid leave. You may also consider whether the matter should be treated as a conduct issue and dealt with as a disciplinary matter.

  • Pregnancy Related Illness
    You still need to have a discussion with the returning employee.

  • Stress Related Illness
    You need to look at the likely causes of the stress. If it could be work related look at what you can do to remove the cause.

  • Work Related Illness or Injury
    Where the individual feels the illness or injury has been caused by work, seek advice from your H&S Advisor.

  • Bullying or Harassment
    Where the individual says they are being bullied or harassed by another employee or group of employees seek advice from your HR Advisor, even if the employee says they don’t want you to take any action.

Unsatisfactory Levels of Absence
Unsatisfactory levels of absence cause the biggest disruption to owners of small businesses due to the unpredictability and lack of notice. Where an individual’s levels of absence have reached unsatisfactory proportions further investigations will be required to see if a particular pattern can be identified e.g. school holidays, regular Mondays, days when their football team are playing etc. The discussions relating to concerns about absence should be separate from the Return to Work meeting.

For more information about How To Deal with Unsatisfactory Levels of Absence. Read Unsatisfactory Levels of Absence

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The Absence due to Sickness or Injury folder contains guidance and resources to help you manage short term sickness. Short term absence is generally an absence of less than seven consecutive days that would be covered by a self-certification note, however these procedures will also cover any absence covered by medical certificates which has not reached four weeks in length, where an absence does reach four weeks in length, please follow the procedures described in the long-term absence. I provide a Self-Certification form and Return to Work form with Guidelines to help you prepare for and conduct the meeting.

Return To Work Meetings