Vanessa Sallows: Group risk benefits help sick staff return to work

Group risk benefits can be key components of a strategy to help staff on sickness absence return to work.

Group risk benefits must be used in conjunction with a comprehensive and tailored strategy to help employees return to work.

Returning to work can be daunting for an employee who has been absent for a long time. Individuals often have concerns about the information they share with colleagues about the cause of their absence, as well as the workload they left behind when they went off sick. They may also worry about how their manager will behave towards them when they return.

As part of our return-to-work approach, we have researched the emotions people can face before they return to the workplace. It is important for employers to realise that these emotions can, if not managed, lead to a returning employee suffering from anxiety and depression, on top of the original cause of their absence.

Common problems

Common problems include an inability to cope or adjust to a new routine, fear of failing, lack of acceptance, support and understanding from colleagues, committing to return to work when they do not feel completely ready, and adapting to new systems and processes.

Employers serious about helping staff should have a sickness absence policy that includes a return-to-work process. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence explores the return to-work journey in its guidelines on managing long-term sickness and incapacity to work, and makes recommendations such as implementing workplace modifications and having coping strategies and psychological therapies to support employees.

A return-to-work policy should be flexible and adapted to fit each absent employee. For example, some employees may need a slight adjustment to their working environment or hours, while others may require on going support, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, face-to-face counselling, or physiotherapy.

Simple claims process

By having a policy that meets its needs, an employer can help make the claims process as simple as possible. In each case, the employee, their line manager and occupational health team must be involved in devising an appropriate strategy.

Group income protection (GIP) policies often have a wealth of benefits that can be used as part of a return-to-work strategy.

For example, our GIP offers a free employee assistance programme (EAP) for all employees, which includes unlimited confidential telephone counselling, support from our partner, Rethink Mental Illness, and access to discounted smoking cessation courses, as well as access to an online healthy living portal.

Of course, employers should always read policy terms to ensure the correct cover is in place and that a provider can offer a benefit when needed.

Return-to-work schedule

But, irrespective of support, a return to-work schedule should be based on an employee’s readiness, required treatment times, and the time their employer needs to make any workplace adjustments.

Early intervention is key, and helps both employers and healthcare providers devise strategies to support employees back to work as soon as they are ready. A process whereby an employee can talk about their illness to their line manager or internal HR managers helps the process.

What is important about this group risk-based approach is that it is a process and not an event. And it is tried and tested. We have helped more than 70% of long-term absent staff over the last couple of years, so they can return to work. This proves that group risk benefits can be used as part of an effective return-to-work strategy.


  • Group risk benefits must be used in conjunction with a comprehensive return-to-work strategy.
  • A return-to-work policy should be adapted to fit each absent worker.
  • Flexible working can help support employees back to work.

Vanessa Sallows is underwriting and benefits director, group protection, at Legal and General