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Helping employees on sickness leave return to work

Newcastle & Edinburgh Occupational Health Provider

Occupational Health Physician at desk

Ten tips for helping employees on sickness leave back to work safely, quickly and efficiently

So, your business has made it through the pandemic? Check

And business is doing quite well? Or very well? Check

All employees been back from furlough a long time now?

But still, some people are off sick either long term or frequent short term absence?

Employee absence is a big problem for companies trying to forge ahead in a post-pandemic world. There are enough problems to deal with either recovering lost business or, if a business is very brisk, trying to keep up with customer demand, supply prices rocketing and delivery problems.

The last thing management needs are to have their most important asset, their people, deficient in numbers and uncertain when they will ever return.

Occupational health providers like OH3 Ltd are there to provide assessment, support and advice to your employees and you, their manager, on how to best support them back to work quickly and efficiently. It is very common for us to receive a referral to assess an employee who was on long term sick only for them to arrive at the clinic and tell us they were about to come back to work in the next few days or have already done so in the past week. It’s almost like the very act of referring people to occupational health acts as a stimulus to them returning to work.  

Some people off on long term sick have as their only goal to get better and return to work in the quickest possible timescale, and they benefit from an assessment to;

  1. make sure they are genuinely recovered and not just returning for financial reasons
  2. ensure it is safe to return to their full normal duties or
  3. ensure a supportive work plan is given if adjusted hours or duties are needed
  4. decide if further absences are expected with the condition and if it can be prevented

Some employees are in a different category and may intend to come back to work sometime but delay longer than needed for various reasons. They may be uncertain whether or when they can return or sometimes have already decided they’re not coming back at all. How do HR or line managers tell which is which?

How to help employees on sickness leave return to work:

Refer to occupational health EARLY, as early as possible. We would recommend in the first two weeks of absence if possible but certainly within the first month. What is the point of waiting until four months of absence have elapsed if an occupational health referral might have succeeded in a supportive return to work within one month of absence; you’ve lost three months of productive time needlessly.

Consider a phone or video call assessment, these save time travelling, are good for the planet, and help employees who are anxious about leaving their homes or travelling on public transport or driving. It also helps those with dependents. Most conditions can be dealt with this way. It’s best to leave the face to face assessment only for those with a specific reason in mind, or the occupational health department has advised face to face is preferable.

Consider whether you need an OHA (Occupational Health Advisor) or an OHP (Occupational Health Physician). OHAs are very experienced at dealing with a wide range of mild to moderate health problems, deliver excellent reports and advice, and are very cost-effective. For more serious or challenging health problems or a mix of moderate ones, maybe both physical and psychological, you may choose an OHP report. These cost more but can focus on the doctor’s opinion of the diagnosis and simplify complex issues into an easy to understand format with options for management to consider.

Discuss the benefits of referral with your employee – it’s very good practice anyway and gives you the chance to sell it as a benefit, which it is. A referral to occupational health is something supportive you as a manager are doing for your employee. By supporting them in their time of illness and giving them a chance to have another medical opinion and find out if there are any additional ways you can as a business support the employee. Performed well, this meeting to discuss an occupational health referral gives you another chance to cover care and concern issues yourself and means by the time they turn up to their occupational health appointment, they already feel looked after by the company.

Ask the employee to sign to say you’ve explained the reasons for a referral, so there are no surprises. Tell them you’ll be looking for advice, for example, to see if they might need any adjustments when they first return, or they might need a phased return.

Ask your own specific questions on the referral form – you can tick our standard questions if you like. Still, the best reports address the exact questions managers have so, please ask them, and it gives us the ability to focus on them specifically with the employee. 

Definitely tick the question or ask, ‘When is this employee likely to be fit to return to work’. This sounds obvious, but many employees who are off work longer than they need to be are in limbo with investigations, awaiting completion or until they ‘feel 100%’ when neither of these are relevant to the return to work date. We can focus on actual reasons why they are still off and explore any barriers to them returning, such as thinking their GP needs to ‘sign them back to work’.

Ask if any adjustments would help them return and offer these to the employee before the occupational health appointment. It gives the employee time to ponder and gets them in the positive frame of mind expecting to return rather than being in limbo about returning.  

Keep in touch with your employee in a supportive way. Nothing prolongs a sickness absence more than management not being in touch enough. If they say to us, “I’ve never heard from my manager or HR” it is usually followed by a presumption that “work doesn’t want me back” or are “not bothered” if I return. Calling to offer support and ask how people are doing and offering any help you can, even if that is limited, is an excellent way to keep work in mind for long-term sick employees and helps them keep the focus on returning as soon as possible are well enough. 

Offer physiotherapy or counselling its great if your company has access to an EAP or health insurance for physiotherapy services. Even if not paying monthly for access to a blanket service, some companies offer to pay individually for these services as required. Typically they will ask occupational health at their assessment to advise in the report if therapies would help and to arrange them if so. Employees appreciate this help and everything their management is doing for them when support like this is offered. We find employees much more motivated to return to work quickly when offered such help. For relatively little cost, these therapies expedite recovery, build resilience and give people exercises or coping skills to prevent problems in the future.

In my next blog, I will explore some of these common reasons in more depth why people are still off sick longer than they need to be. They almost invariably have ongoing medical issues, but it’s often more psychological or social reasons or their health beliefs which govern their return to work intentions. Occupational health assessments cut to the chase!