When an employee is off work due to long-term sick leave, lasting four weeks or more, they can face increased difficulties getting back into the routine of work and their normal way of life. These difficulties are varied and will depend on the nature of the illness but it can affect loss of confidence, belief in the loss of skills, physical and mental wellbeing, and isolation and disconnection from the world of work.
To overcome these issues, employers can implement various strategies and processes which can provide a more secure return to work. This can be done by recognising how vital good health among the workforce is and how having a structured return-to-work process helps reintegrate employees successfully after a period of long-term illness. A return-to-work plan offers a considerate and measured approach to overcoming the challenges in returning to work and offers the opportunity for an open discussion around positive solutions.
Employers need to listen to workers and address their issues and concerns. They should not presume what their issues are, listening enables the employer to identify the real problem and therefore ascertain a more appropriate solution.
Maintain good communication and keep in contact with workers while they are absent. Keeping them updated with what is happening at the organisation can help employees feel more included and reduce anxiety when they return to work.
Employers can offer flexible working arrangements, such as a change in working patterns and flexible hours or part-time working, and make reasonable adjustments such as reviewing workstations or working environments. Implementing measures in the short-term can reduce stress and pressure on workload.
The timing needs to be right, by planning the optimum time for when the worker should return to work. Commencing the process too early may risk adding unnecessary pressure, but also starting too late could compound and add to the issues that are making it difficult for them to return.
Work impacts and plays one of the largest roles in shaping our perceptions of ourselves and being absent from our normal day-to-day environment for a long-time can add to a feeling of a lack of self-esteem. Therefore, when the time is right, having the ability to return to work can be aligned to speeding up our return to full health. It provides workers with a dedicated network of support as well as an opportunity to regain confidence and healthy mental wellbeing.
Implementing a phased return will often be the most successful way of starting this process.
Jonathan Lord is a lecturer in human resources at the University of Salford Business School.