Return to work interviews: Are they still worth it?

Return to work interviews: Are they still worth it?

19 October 2023

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One of the main tools that is used to manage short term absence is to carry out return to work interviews. These are normally carried out at the point when an employee is well enough to come back to work. According to a study by Personnel Today, around 85% of businesses expect their line managers to hold some form of return to work meeting regardless of the length of an employee’s absence.

But are return to work interviews actually still worth it? In this blog, we explore this in more detail and we look at the purpose and the importance of a return to work interview. But first, let’s look at what a return to work interview is.

What is a return to work interview?

Although the word ‘interview’ adds a degree of formality, a return to work interview is essentially just an informal conversation between an employer and their employee to find out how the employee is following a period of sickness absence.

Many businesses choose to remove the unnecessary gravity of the wording, and they prefer to call it a welfare chat, welfare check or whatever they feel comfortable with.

What is the purpose of a return to work interview?

First and foremost, a return to work interview is not punitive and should not be seen by employees as something to be concerned about – unless of course the reason for their absence was not genuine and they have something to hide!

A return to work interview is an opportunity to talk to the employee who is returning from absence and to explore the reason for absence in more detail. Was it due to maternity or disability? Was it related to a workplace accident? Is there an underlying health condition? Is the employee actually well enough to be back in work? Has the employee been to their GP and been prescribed any medication?

The employee may also need to take some time to get back up to speed with work, so you need to assess if a phased return is appropriate or does the employee’s condition require some professional assessment via a referral to an occupational health provider.

These are all extremely useful pieces of information that will help employers to build up a picture of the employee’s health and wellbeing and enable them to provide relevant support. It might also be that during the period of absence, things have changed in some way at work and any news should be shared with the returning employee during the chat so that they are up to speed on goings on.

Ultimately, if short term absence is persistent, you may end up in an absence related disciplinary situation. Having complete records which document an employee’s absence are valuable evidence and therefore an additional purpose of holding the return to work interview.

How to prepare for a return to work interview

As an employer, it’s important to make sure that you are well prepared for a return to work interview with your employee. Not only will being prepared help you, it will give a positive impression to the employee, calm any nerves that they may have and will mean that everyone gets the most out of the conversation. Acas offer guidance on what employers should do to prepare and set out four main areas as below:

  • Ensure that the employee is aware that the discussion will be taking place and that it’s held privately and confidentially
  • Check any records in advance of the meeting and take copies of documents to the meeting if they are relevant, for example notes of previous return to work interviews or sick notes.
  • Have a set of questions to use. Typically employers will use a form to record the meeting and this ensures that standard questions are asked for consistency, plus any questions which may be specific to the employee’s reason for absence.
  • Consider what support may be relevant and can reasonably be offered to the employee so that options can be discussed.

Why is it worth holding return to work interviews?

The CIPD’s health and wellbeing at work survey 2023 reported that employee absence was at its highest rate since 2010 with employees absent on average for 7.8 days per year, which equates to 3.4% of working time lost. The survey also found that the three main causes of short term absence were minor illnesses (e.g. a cold, upset stomach, headache etc.), musculoskeletal issues (e.g. muscle strains and back pain) and mental ill health.

Therefore, it’s very much worth it for employers to take the steps to put in place effective measures such as return to work interviews in order to help them to manage short term absence. This type of absence is both disruptive and costly for their business and by not addressing absence through such interventions, employers are burying their heads in the sand and potentially creating further problems for themselves in future.

Let HRX help with your return to work interviews

Our HR software can help businesses of all shapes and sizes effectively manage employee absence. You can record and monitor employee sickness and resolve any issues that arise from persistent sickness. Why not try it out for yourself and sign up for our FREE 30 day trial. Alternatively, get in touch with us to arrange a free demo of our software today.


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