Return to work interviews: when and how to use them + free template
People have to take time off work for all sorts of reasons - illness, pregnancy, death in the family, mental health issues. No one can be switched “On” all the time.
On the same token, employees also find excuses and ways to skip out on important work when they take advantage of company policies like sick leave. Who hasn’t taken a sick day to take care of a personal affair or just because they needed a break?
When you’re a small business trying to accomplish big things with a small team, every last person counts. A return-to-work interview is there to maintain employee wellbeing and productivity in a way that encourages open dialogue between your organisation and your team members.
I have had years of experience advising small businesses on how to talk to employees after a period of absence, in a way that’s fair to them while still in keeping with UK employment law. That’s why I put together this guide on return-to-work interviews, where I’ll explore the purpose and benefits of return-to-work interviews, and offer guidance on how to prepare and conduct one.
What is a return to work interview
A return to work interview is a discussion between a company and their employee that takes place following an extended period of absence. The purpose of this interview is to support the employee as they transition back into the workplace.
This return to work interview is an opportunity to welcome the employee back into the team, discuss the reasons behind their absence, ensure the employee’s wellbeing, and determine whether they’re ready to work again.
When is a return to work interview necessary?
Typically, a return-to-work interview should happen whenever an employee returns to work after they’ve had a significant period of absence. These interviews should take place regardless of the reason - whether sick leave, maternity leave, or sabbatical.
Although they are not legally mandatory as per UK law, return to work interviews are highly advisable as a best practice to follow in case you believe your team member may struggle to smoothly get back into work. Having an open and honest discussion about the employee’s absence ensures that the employee is ready to return to work, get them up to speed on anything that happened while they were away, and see if they need any additional support as they get back into the swing of things.
When you hold these interviews, you’re showing your team members that you value them and prioritise their wellbeing. It also gives you a chance to keep track of any unusual absences and catch any troubling or suspicious patterns so they can be addressed.
Benefits of return to work interviews
These return-to-work interviews are more than just a workplace formality. They offer a wide range of benefits - both for you and your team members - that make your organisation a better place to work as a whole. The benefits of return-to-work interviews include:
- Improved communication: The interview helps the employer understand the reason behind the employee’s absence, and assess their current state of health. This way, they’ll be better positioned to support the employee for a more smooth transition to work
- Increased employee engagement: Showing your team members that you care about their physical and mental health can lead to better job satisfaction
- Reduced absenteeism: Having these return to work interviews regularly will discourage any sick leave absences that aren’t legitimate, as trends and problem areas can be found and responded toEnsuring compliance: Return-to-work interviews help you stay compliant with health and safety regulations because they give a documented record that you took steps to support the employee as they came back to work
For example, let’s say that a team member took a long leave of absence due to stress before returning to work. Their return to work interview can help them identify what led to the stress like workload or toxic team dynamics. These issues can be addressed by making adjustments, such as changing the employee’s workload or offering them stress management resources.
Conducting a return to work interview
Having a return to work interview, whether for sickness, maternity leave or holiday, is about creating a setting where the employee feels heard and supported by their employer. There are three main stages to the return to work interview process: preparation, the interview itself and the follow-up.
Preparation for the interview
Before the interview happens, you’ll need to do some groundwork. You can start by reviewing the employee’s absence record, to get a clearer picture of the context and duration of the absence.
Prepare a list of open-ended return to work interview questions. These questions should seek to understand the circumstances behind the absence, gauge the team member’s readiness to work, and identify any accommodations that they might need.
Make sure the interview takes place in a comfortable and private environment. That will help the employee feel at ease. Approach this interview with a positive attitude and an open mind. The goal is to help the employee have a smooth transition back to work.
During the interview
Remember that the return to work interview is a dialogue, not an interrogation. You’re having a conversation, not drilling them with questions.
Start with welcoming the employee back and expressing support, offering whatever they need as they rejoin the team.
Talk about the reasons behind their absence in a non-judgemental manner. Assess their mental health and readiness to work. Ask them if they’ve sought medical advice and if there are any ongoing health issues that might impact their ability to work. You should also update them on any changes that happened while they were away.
Maintain a supportive and non-confrontational tone throughout the interview. Listen to the employee’s responses with empathy and understanding. This will help you build trust - both with the employee being interviewed, and your team as a whole.
After the interview
Once the return to work interview is over, there are some follow-up steps you should take.
First things first: document the discussion along with any agreed-upon action items or adjustments. This is both for your own HR record keeping and to stay compliant with UK employment laws. Any personal or health-related issues that come up during the interview should be kept private and confidential.
Communicate any relevant information about accommodations to relevant parties, like team leaders or other HR team members.
Arrange a check-in meeting to follow up with the employee and see how well the employee is adjusting. This shows ongoing support and your willingness to help them. It also helps prevent further absences down the line.
For a customisable and repeatable return-to-work interview process, you can download this useful return-to-work interview template so you can make the most out of the interview and have a reliable record of the meeting.
Key questions to ask in a return to work interview
The questions you ask during this return-to-work interview should seek to understand the employee’s situation, evaluate whether they’re ready and able to return to work and anticipate any ongoing support they might need.
Understanding the absence
Start by asking questions like:
- Can you explain more about the reason for your absence?
- How are you feeling now that you’re back?
Questions like these measure their current state of health and readiness to come back to work.
Assessing readiness to return to work
Ask questions about the team member’s confidence in their ability to go back to their day-to-day job duties, and understand any medical considerations to keep in mind, such as:
- Have you received any medical advice regarding your return to work?
- Do you feel ready to return to your usual responsibilities?
Identifying support and adjustments
Try asking your team member about any potential adjustments or support they may need, with questions such as:
- Is there anything we can do to support your return to work?
- Would a phased return to work or flexible working hours be helpful for you?
These questions can help explore helpful adjustments to the employee’s work schedule that can help them transition back into the workplace.
Discussing future absences
Planning for any future potential absences is important as well, with questions like:
- Do you anticipate any future absences related to this issue?
Show the employee that you’re considerate and supportive of their ongoing health needs.
Warning signs of non-legitimate absences
While you should trust your team members and give them the benefit of the doubt, it’s also important as an HR professional that you stay wary of any signs of non-legitimate absences.
Patterns that might indicate avoidance of work or abuse of the company’s absence allowance to look out for might be:
- Frequent short-term absences
- Absences before or after weekends and holidays, particularly if they’re frequently occurring
- Reluctance to provide relevant medical documentation
If you see any patterns like these, it might be a good idea to bring them up with the employee in a sensitive and non-accusatory manner.
How HR software can support your return to work process
A small business already has 101 things to keep track of in terms of HR alone. For a small company that has to make the most out of everything they have, even short absences can have an effect on the success of the team as a whole.
Using HR software like CharlieHR’s can help you track employee absences and keep track of employees' time off for you. You can also flag if someone has gone above their absence allowance, so you can have necessary conversations when they need to happen.
Want to try out CharlieHR’s time off feature for yourself? Try CharlieHR for free and give your employees what they need to start their return back to work with a bang.