A return to work plan should be tailored to the needs of the worker and the business. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Six steps to returning to work
These six steps are widely used by organisations and are an element of IOSH’s Managing occupational health and wellbeing course, which provides practical advice and tools for managers to create a healthy and productive place of work.
Step 1 recording sickness absence
The first step of a return-to-work plan is to create a policy for recording sickness absence. This will help the organisation to identify why the worker is off sick and if it is a work-related illness. Doing this will identify if the worker has a high rate of sickness and help to benchmark the organisation’s performance.
There are many tools and template systems available for tracking and recording sickness absence in the workplace, but many organisations can set up their own. This doesn’t need to be complicated and can be done on a spreadsheet or word processor.
Sickness absence information is sensitive data and must be kept private. The organisation needs to be clear to their workers on what the information is used for and ensure it isn’t passed on inappropriately to anyone internally or externally.
Generally, sickness absence can be recorded by line managers and HR departments, but an OH professional can help by ensuring records are being kept up to date and monitoring them. This will result in workers being offered support when they are off sick, and issues being highlighted if they need to be investigated.
Step 2 keep in contact
As part of the return-to-work plan it is important for the organisation and the worker to keep in contact. This is to ensure the worker doesn’t feel out of touch or undervalued. The organisation should keep in regular contact with them but without making them feel pressurised to come back.
Regular contact will demonstrate that the organisation is committed to supporting the individual and plays an important role in ensuring a successful return to work.
Initial contact should always be personalised, either meeting in person or via a phone call. Sending a positive letter that assures the worker they are being supported by the organisation is a very good way to initiate a return-to-work process.
Documenting organisational support also strengthens their legal position with regards to intent to support the worker.
Tips for planning a conversation with a worker
Who contacts the worker?
The worker’s manager is the most appropriate person to contact the absent worker, as they know the worker best. If the worker doesn’t feel comfortable talking to their manager, they could be contacted by an HR/workplace representative or someone the worker feels comfortable talking to.
The communication needs to be reasonable and timed correctly. Too much initial contact with someone with mental ill-health could be detrimental. For example, if a worker is stressed from work and has recently stopped work, it is recommended that careful consideration be given to when first contact is made.
Consulting the workplace occupational health services (OHS) team or injury management specialist is encouraged in these cases.
Information about a worker’s medical condition should be kept confidential, unless the worker has consented (with a signature) to the information being passed to others. The manager and workers should agree what can be communicated.
Step 3 plan and implement workplace controls or adjustments
Return to work risk assessments
When a worker is returning to work, controls and procedures that had been considered safe in the past may not be suitable now. Risks will need to be identified so that the worker can return to a safe working environment. To identify any risks to the worker, the organisation should undertake a return-to- work risk assessment.
The risk assessment should consider:
- the impact of the workplace on the worker’s ability to complete tasks without causing harm to themselves or others
- the work tasks of the individual
- if existing controls are sufficient or if additional controls will need to be considered by the organisation
The risk assessment should be checked by the worker to ensure they are satisfied with the controls being put in place.
Additional considerations when carrying out the risk assessments could be:
- medication that may prohibit the worker from working on machinery or driving
- first aid requirements – additional provision may be required due to the nature of the illness or medication
- adjustments to the environment or workplace arrangements.
Adjustments to workplace arrangements and/or environments should be considered
to aid a worker’s return to work. The adjustments don’t have to be difficult, and there are many solutions that can be achieved by working with the individual and their supporting medical professional.
The benefits of workplace adjustments are to:
- return the worker to their job with any modifications needed, or to an alternative job if no adjustments are possible
- retain valuable skills
- remove any obstacles and barriers to return to work
Always seek assistance and advice from other professions when required.
IOSH’s research return to work after cancer has two example risk assessments that could be used for anyone returning to work.
Step 4 specialist advice and treatment
In some circumstances further assistance may be required, including OH advice from in-house professionals (if applicable) or external consultants. Some workers may require rehabilitation in the form of specialist treatment and support from other services before they return to work.
OH professionals such as occupational therapists can advise on good practice on return to work and help to determine what work is appropriate for the worker. They can also provide advice on whether rehabilitation is an option and, if so, the adjustments to the workplace that may be needed.
Rehabilitation, sometimes referred to as workplace or vocational rehabilitation, means helping a worker who has been injured or ill to go back to a safe and suitable workplace at the earliest time possible using medical interventions and treatments. It is often carried out by specialist OH or medical professionals.
Having OH support can:
- help to develop a workplace culture
- contribute to an organisation’s success
- help to ensure compliance with the law
Organisational methods of helping to treat a worker who is returning to work can be as follows.
- create an inclusive, open and valuable culture by encouraging workers to be open and by demonstrating that worker wellbeing is important to the organisation.
- good communication – using various methods of communication to raise awareness of illnesses, for example mental ill-health. These methods will enable the organisation to receive valuable feedback regarding potential health issues.
- working methods – allow those who may be experiencing ill health such as stress to take regular breaks, adjust working environments and adopt flexible working methods. Set clear and realistic targets for workers and consider ways in which to measure ill health effects.
- internal support – provide workers with adequate support, education and guidance on how to manage some ill health conditions or negative perceptions of illnesses such as mental ill-health.
- external support – offer worker assistance programmes to provide support externally through counselling, therapies or legal advice. Give support to workers who may require other treatments and make regular contact with them to provide additional support and to mitigate organisational disengagement.
- technology, such as apps on mobile phones or tablets, can also help to treat some health conditions. These apps can help workers to self-manage their condition; improve cognitive skills; receive training and development; and track symptoms. Such apps may be able to analyse data and recognise changes in behavioural patterns.
Step 5 agree a return to work plan
To help the worker return to work, it is a good idea to prepare a formal plan that acknowledges the individual’s circumstances. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it is a useful tool to address actions or issues that could prevent the individual from returning to work. The plan can be in template form to prompt the manager or OSH professional – but it’s important to remember that everyone will be different and some of the circumstances will vary dramatically.
The plan should include details about workplace adjustments, working environment and working arrangements, checks that need to be made to ensure the plan is put into practice and dates when the plan will be reviewed.
If any medical or occupational professionals are involved, make sure they are included and have seen and agreed the plan too.
By having a return-to- work system in place, the organisation will benefit from keeping valued staff, avoiding unnecessary recruitment and training costs and keeping the organisation productive.
Return to work interview
A return-to-work interview is crucial to any successful return-to-work process. To ensure the interview is successful it should be carried out face-to- face and in a relaxing, private environment.
The interview should be well planned beforehand to ensure that it is appropriate for the individual – someone with cancer will have different needs to someone returning to work following an accident. Templates do help, but ensure it is personal to them and considers their individual needs following any treatment they have been going through. The worker may find them difficult, particularly if their absence involved distressing situations. Focusing on what the injured person can do at work – their ‘functional capacity’ – is key.
Step 6 co-ordinate the return to work
When the worker returns to work, no matter how long they have been absent, they should be welcomed back to ensure that they feel supported. It is possible that other advisers will be involved, so it might be useful to appoint a co-ordinator to facilitate the return to
work. This ensures the correct arrangements are in place, eases communications and ensures that the worker receives the correct information. A co-ordinator will also ensure the worker has one point of contact instead of having to liaise with different departments.