Return to work

Work related ill health results in millions of lost working days. Organisations can support workers early in their absence to help them to return to work as soon as is  practicable.

Return to work is a concept encompassing all procedures and initiatives that facilitate the rehabilitation of workers who are absent  from work for various reasons or have a reduction in their work capacity or capability.

As work is generally good for one’s health and wellbeing, it is important for a worker  to return to work as quickly as possible. Research by the United Kingdom (UK) Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that after just six weeks’ sickness absence a person’s ability to return to work falls away rapidly.

Getting workers back to work as soon as practicable will ensure they are staying on a regular work schedule and maintaining a productive mindset. It will also prevent interruption of salary and/or benefits.

Supporting workers to return to work is a team approach. It could include the following people:

  • manager
  • supervisor
  • human resource (HR) workers
  • OSH professional
  • representatives (OSH, labour, union).

Other services may also be involved if required, such as OH professionals, medical professionals or a case management worker. In some cases, a claims manager from an insurance company may be involved.

During the return-to-work process, workers  may require additional training or updating on any changes relevant to their role or within the organisation while they have been on leave. This may be decided by the OH professional and their manager and arranged during the return-to-work interview. Without an OH professional, this  can be arranged by the manager and the worker.

Developing a return-to-work plan for workers will help to reflect an organisation’s  commitment to provide a safe and healthy workplace. This will benefit the organisation  financially by minimising the costs of recruiting and hiring new workers. This will also reduce downtime and the need to train replacement workers. It will also benefit the organisation’s culture as it will increase morale and improve operations by ensuring workers are trained and skilled.

In the return-to-work plan it is good practice for the organisation to:

  • keep in regular contact with the worker
  • identify and provide suitable duties for the worker
  • monitor the workers
  • provide a supportive environment and be understanding.


Rehabilitation is one component of the return-to-work process. The aim of rehabilitation is to help a worker back to suitable or alternative work after long-term sickness, disability or unemployment.

Getting back to work as quickly as possible  enables workers to regain confidence and motivation, and to maintain good relationships with their managers and co-workers. The worker could also avoid financial hardship due to missing work and possible early retirement due to ill health.

A cost effective way an OSH professional can support rehabilitation is by setting up a formal Occupational Health (OH) and rehabilitation programme. A well-managed programme can help:

  • keep workers in work
  • reduce workers’ short-term pain and suffering
  • minimise or eliminate long- term disabilities
  • get workers back to work quickly and safely.

Providing rehabilitation in the return-to- work process will also support a worker’s wellbeing by:

  • ensuring faster recovery
  • reducing suffering
  • reducing disruption to family, social and working life
  • improving physical and mental health
  • improving financial security.

Returning to work after a work-related incident or ill-health

If a worker is absent because of a work- related incident or illness, they might be reluctant to agree to reintegrate back into work. This could be because they are:

  • concerned that the source of harm hasn’t been removed or aren’t confident  that what has been done to remove
  • or control it has been successful
  • thinking about claiming compensation and feel it may have a negative impact on their claim
  • not aware of the organisation’s ability and willingness to be sufficiently flexible to meet their needs.

Part of an OSH professional’s role is to provide the organisation with the confidence to carry out a successful return-to-work programme. This can be done by making sure that a proper investigation has been carried out and measures have been put in place to prevent recurrence.

Returning to work following a bereavement

As well as returning to work following an incident or illness, organisations should consider having arrangements in place including policies and procedures for workers who return to work following a bereavement.

It’s important to remember that grief can affect people in many ways, such as their mental health. Life events such as returning  to work, can also have an effect on their health. OSH professionals can provide managers with information and support, including guidance on the worker’s ability and advice on work adjustments. Each case will need to be assessed on its individual merits.