6 key steps every return to work plan should contain

Careful planning and execution is required when attempting to facilitate an employee’s return to work.

Following a period of long-term absence, as the result of ill health, injury or disability, staff may experience feelings of isolation or apprehension. Furthermore, if their return is not managed properly and appropriate adjustments made, it could result in a relapse.

Formal return-to-work policies are not a legal obligation but can be a good way of setting out expectations, roles and responsibilities. Below are six key elements to consider when formulating a successful policy.

1/ Regular consultation

Regular contact and consultation between employer and employee is an essential element of any successful return to work plan, although it is important to strike the right balance. If contact is made too often, some staff may feel as if they are being pressured to return to work too early. However, infrequent communication could cause others to feel undervalued or out of touch.

Therefore, it makes sense for responsibility to rest with each employee’s line manager, who will know the individual in each case and be better equipped to work around any sensitive issues. These conversations should focus on the employee’s wellbeing, capabilities and what support could be offered.

Following a period of absence, a return to work interview should be conducted where the employee is given the chance to raise any issues which require ongoing support and the employer can discuss how best to integrate them back into the workforce.

2/ A modified role

In certain situations, returning staff will no longer be able to conduct their job in the same manner as they did previously.

In cases where an employee has become disabled, the employer is legally obliged under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to enable them to continue working. However, even in cases that do not involve disability, adjustments may be required, particularly when the job role was the cause of stress.

Possible modifications should be identified and agreed upon with the employee before being reviewed regularlyto assess their suitability. In some cases, redeployment may only be needed as a short-term measure during an employee’s recovery. In others, it may be a permanent arrangement so it is crucial to assess the suitability of the new role, discuss how it will impact on contractual terms and conditions and offer necessary training or support.

3/ Workplace adaptations

Employers are required by law to undertake workplace risk assessments in order to safeguard the health and safety of staff. When there has been a significant change to an employee’s ability to conduct their role due to illness, injury or disability, it is necessary to review assessments to identify any new hazards and amend if necessary.

By conducting an assessment in advance of the employee’s return to work, timely adjustments can be made to the buildings, furniture, workstations, equipment or tools. For example, in the case of musculoskeletal problems, an ergonomic chair or improved desk configuration could reduce the chance of recurring problems in the future.

The installation of ramps or lowered shelving may be required in order to accommodate disabled staff, while improved lighting could be necessary for visually-impaired staff.

4/ Flexible working hours

A phased return may be beneficial for members of staff who are concerned about how they will cope with the transition back into working life. A structured process of gradually building up to normal working hours should be agreed with employees, in consultation with an Occupational Health professional where necessary.

Alternatively, a framework of flexible working could be agreed, which might include irregular hours or home working. This would allow the
employee to fulfil their obligations while fitting in ongoing treatment or simply working in a safe and comfortable environment.

5/ Use expert advice

It is difficult for an informed decision to be made about an employee’s return to work without first gaining input from the relevant experts. Often, such information is expected to come from a GP but this can sometimes prove insufficient and further advice is required.

Employers can seek advice on disability from the Disability Rights Commission to ensure any modifications made to accommodate staff are appropriate and adequate. Alternatively, help and financial support might be available through the Government-run Access to Work scheme.

NHS Plus and the incoming Health and Work Service, due to be launched in April 2015, will also offer support in cases of long-term absence. However, working with an Occupational Health practitioner may be a better option, allowing a return to work plan to be tailored around the specific requirements of the case. 

6/ Case management

When consultations require input from a number of different sources, it is essential to ensure activity is properly coordinated. Appointment of a coordinator who knows the specifics of the case should ensure information is received on time, interested parties are aware of their requirements and deadlines are met.

If external Occupational Health support is employed, a case manager will often be allocated to ensure the return to work plan runs as smoothly as possible, particularly in complicated cases.

The case manager will liaise regularly with both employer and employee, ensuring the appropriate expert advice is secured and assessments conducted to formulate the best possible plan for securing a successful return to work.

Given they will be sensitive to the needs of both employer and employee, case managers can also mediate in cases where communications have broken down or help is needed to move things on.