Need to know:
- Employers must ensure employees are fully supported when returning to work after long-term absence.
- Benefits such as flexible working can make the transition back to work easier.
The Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) Working well: A plan to reduce long-term sickness absence report, published in February 2017, revealed that annually 900,000 employees take a prolonged period of sickness absence from work for four weeks or more. Of this group, just over a quarter (26%) cite stress as the main reason for their absence, with a further 16% suffering from mental health issues and 13% with musculoskeletal conditions.
While there are many reasons why an employee may take sick leave, others can be away from the workplace for long periods for other reasons, such as leave after experiencing a bereavement, parental leave or a sabbatical.
For employees to be fully ready to return to work after long-term leave, organisations need to offer support options. Specific initiatives such as flexible working, regular one-to-one catch ups, counselling sessions and access to mental wellbeing apps, can be effective in ensuring an employee feels comfortable slotting back into a work-life routine.
What benefits employers can offer
For organisations to fully support employees returning from long-term leave, links to an occupational health (OH) service can provide advice on what an individual employee needs support-wise. This advice is particularly useful during the current Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.
Where many businesses may be uncertain with how to best support sick employees during this time, OH services can offer the right guidance. Anne Harriss, professor at London South Bank University, says: “OH professionals include nurses and physicians with a unique skill set regarding the effect of work on health, and health on work. They can offer advice to managers, HR professionals and individuals regarding returning to work.”
OH departments or services can help employers determine precise routes of rehabilitation back into work for individual employees. Rachel Suff, policy lead for health and wellbeing at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), says: “The valuable contribution that occupational health professionals can make to an organisation can be far wider than is often realised, not only by providing effective rehabilitation and return-to-work strategies when people are already ill, but by giving expert advice and introducing initiatives to help prevent ill health in the first place.
“Employers that invest in this area are likely to more than reap the benefits in terms of better health outcomes for staff, but also from increased engagement and loyalty.”
Avenues of support
When an employee returns to work after a bereavement, it is understandably a sensitive time. It is important to ensure that there are various avenues of support available if the employee wishes to speak with someone, and of course, ensuring that these are promoted.
It is only important for employees returning from bereavement leave to understand that there is always someone to talk to for support, but to also have enough space to be eased back into the workforce in their own time. Clea Harmer, chief executive at stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands, says: “When employees return to the workplace, it’s imperative to help them move forward and adapt to working after taking an extended period off.
“Every employee returning from leave may adapt in a different way depending on whether they have lost a loved one, have had an illness, or have recently just given birth. So the most important thing upon return is to ensure that many changes of how they return to the workforce are in their control.”
Working parents returning to the workforce after parental leave may appreciate support in the form of flexible working options and professional advice. Some workplaces offer breastfeeding rooms where working mothers can express milk and store it safely. There are also workplace schemes available that offer parents access to lactation or baby sleep consultants. Any extra benefits that an employer can offer will make that transition back into the workplace an easier one.
Flexible and voluntary benefits arrangements that give an employee the option to choose exactly what suits them and their lifestyle can be a sweetener when moving back into working life. Iain Thomson, director of incentive and recognition at Sodexo Engage, says: “Practically speaking, having a central benefits provider where all offerings can be consolidated in one place will make it much easier for staff to know what options are available to them on their return.
“Each employee is likely to require something different upon their return to work, but having a custom platform that acts as a one-stop-shop for employees to choose what benefits suit them will ensure there’s something for everyone.”
Line manager support
Line managers can play a key role in supporting an employee’s return to work. Beth Husted, rehabilitation and wellbeing manager at Unum, says: “Line managers are the most important thing when looking after employees that return to work; they can make or break the experience of an employee if they are unwell. Having an understanding of how to successfully execute early intervention is the most important piece of the support package.
“Knowing what benefits and support options are available to employees, and applying these effectively, is the first step in ensuring that an employee’s return to work is a positive experience.”
It is vital that line managers are able to hold difficult or sensitive conversations with employees. “There can be a plethora of benefits that line managers are able to inform employees about, such as online resources, mindfulness and resource apps,” says Husted. “However, it comes down to the line manager to understand all the benefits that are suitable for every employee working under them.”
Overall, support for returning employees hinges upon effective communication. Employees need to know that their employer is behind them on their journey and that if they speak up about their personal issues upon return, it will not affect their career progression in any way.
“Businesses can adopt a culture of openness,” explains Husted. “Employees are always going to be that little bit guarded, because [of concerns that] if they open up, it might impact their job progression. So it’s about thinking about how [employers] can improve that level of honesty to ensure that employees receive the treatment that they need.”
During the Coronavirus pandemic, there may be employees who have to take a leave of absence due to illness or family members becoming ill. There are measures that employers can take to ensure their return is as stable as possible.
As Harriss concludes: “A robust, well-considered return-to-work plan will give confidence to the workforce that their safety will be ensured. While ensuring this, employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can also offer financial and legal advice and counselling where appropriate.”