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Importance of return to work program for HR

01/11/2021 minute read Alex Arundale

CIPD research has found that the longer employees stay away from work due to illness, the more difficult it is to actually return. Periods of long illness can erode confidence and bring with it a great deal of anxiety around their job security, making a return to work feel like an insurmountable hurdle.

Having a well embedded return to work program is absolutely vital for organisations who wish to facilitate a smooth transition from employees being off as a result of long term illness or injury to returning to the workplace. Ensuring you have a well defined framework to help your people return to work is crucial not only from a business continuity standpoint, but to also safeguard the long term wellbeing of your employees.

We wanted to explore the importance of return to work programs from the perspective of the HR function and how the expertise and knowledge of your people teams can be leveraged to help craft a return to work policy which means your organisation is best placed to support your employees. This ensures that injury or illness doesn’t mean derailing your overall strategy and most importantly, it lets your people know that they are being looked after, should their health fail.

Why is a return to work program so important?

Having the proper framework in place to manage a person’s transition back into the workplace is of equal importance both for employer and employee. From a business standpoint, organisations can rest assured that they are able to remain agile to any disruptions caused by absence, as well as having the knowledge that once an employee is able to return to work, they will be able to hit the ground once more.

For an employee, the anxiety that comes with illness or injury related absence can be crippling. Missing out on work because our physical or mental health is holding us back is an extreme knock to confidence and compounds the already significant strain presented by long term sickness absence. By having clear lines of communication around returning to the workplace, organisations can help alleviate these anxieties and ensure a smoother transition back to work.

Advantages of a return to work program

Some of the key advantages of a return to work program include:

  1.  Helping you Prepare- an effective return to work program allows organisations to set out clear expectations for employees returning after a period of illness. The ability to lay out a framework for their return will play a vital role in ensuring a sense of continuity for employees and allow them to hit the ground running upon their return to the workplace.

  2. Set Expectations- The circumstances of each employee returning to work will undoubtedly differ on a case by case basis. For every person who is wishing for a sense of continuity and a seamless transition back into the workplace, there will be instances where employees require reduced responsibilities- a reduction in workload or physical strain if only for a period of time. Being able to drive conversations around altered workflows and responsibilities ahead of a return date can help the affected individuals feel more secure and supported by their workplace as well as avoiding any potentially embarrassing conversations around ability upon their return.

  3. Clear communication- By introducing a proactive element to managing employee sickness and absence, you are able to craft a return to work experience for every employee which ensures that their needs have been anticipated and accommodated ahead of time. Any period of prolonged illness will inevitably require ongoing discussion with healthcare professionals- conversations which are likely to impact and influence any return to work plans. By having a framework in place to drive forward these conversations, you can ensure that your organisation is as best placed as possible to prepare a return to work program which benefits all parties.

  4. Lower the risk of legal action- By letting clear communication fall by the wayside, organisations run the risk of letting their relationship with their people suffer. When dealing with the topic of long term illness or injury, mishandling of a situation can lead to significant legal complications, with employees potentially filing for compensation. Return to work programs allow you to build an actionable plan in order to support your people every step of the way and ensure that the relationship between organisation and employee remains strong.

How do I create a return to work Program?

With a well embedded Return to work program playing such an integral role in safeguarding the wellbeing of your people and ensuring a necessary sense of business continuity, organisations across all sectors will undoubtedly be keen to begin crafting their own policies.

Whilst the benefits of a well-structured program are undeniable, the repercussions of mishandling an employee’s return to work can be significant both from a legal and financial perspective, meaning that some businesses are understandably wary when it comes to the subject of dealing with long term illness or injury.

Removing some of the mystery around return to work programs and taking a look at how your HR teams can begin crafting policy which not only helps you ensure business continuity but most importantly, lets your people know that they are supported, even under the most unfortunate circumstances, will form a key part of employee engagement and wellbeing.

  1. Return to Work Interviews- Even without a formalised return to work policy in place, most organisations will conduct return to work interviews for their people who have experienced prolonged periods of absence. Rather than a return to work program upending this process, we instead feel that return to work interviews should be folded into the wider practice and in fact be conducted in advance of an employee’s return. Interviews must also be planned accordingly with special considerations made for location- whether the interview will be held remotely or on site. The interview process should also be standardised to some extent with a standard format of questions already prepared. Remember, this is not an interrogation of the employee but a way to help them back into the workforce.
  2. Keep open lines of Communication- One of the crucial elements of the HR function is acting as a touchstone for employees to engage with their wider workplace. When crafting a return to work program, it is vital that clear channels of communication remain open between all parties, particularly to ensure that your organisation receives all the relevant information to help support any employees returning to the workplace. With periods of prolonged illness or injury, this may require consultation with medical professionals around possible reduced responsibilities, extra support measures or accommodations for medication or other treatments.
  3. Tailor the Plan- Every instance of illness and injury will be unique in some respects, as is the recovery and rehabilitation process for each individual. When crafting a return to work program, ensure your HR teams are tailoring the structure to each individual’s needs. This will require leaning on your HR systems and technologies to help log and keep track of specific requirements such as specialised equipment needed or working out a rota for reduced hours. The aim is to support the return of your people into the workplace in a manner which is sympathetic to their needs and will bolster their confidence in the long run.
  4. Team building and in house communication- Any prolonged absence will have an impact not only on the individual who is ill or injured but also on their colleagues, many of whom will have had to shoulder the burden of additional responsibilities to cover an absent employee. When crafting a return to work program, it is important to communicate effectively with the individual’s colleagues and team leaders in a way that doesn’t breach confidentiality but also allows for a measure of planning and accommodation for their return. Set out return to work catch ups so that an returning employee can be kept in the loop around developments in their absence, help layout a roadmap for the individual to gradually reclaim responsibilities from their colleagues in a way which avoids shame or pressure.
  5. Data is Key- The same systems which support you helping your people return to work can also be leveraged to help prevent long term instances of absence in some cases. Your HR systems should provide you with absence management profiles of your people, helping you to identify periods of frequent or prolonged absence. Having this information to hand isn’t about punishing sick leave- far from it. Instead, the data should be harnessed to help you drive conversations around wellbeing with your employees, identifying those who may be in need of extra support and heading off potential issues before they spiral into something more long term.

What’s next?

Ultimately, the responsibility for strategizing and implementing such programs will fall to your HR teams. Their expertise and experience is invaluable for any business looking to develop policies more sympathetic to the wellbeing of their people.

The first step in making a return to work program work in your organisation is recognising the importance of it as a policy and also having the awareness to understand that it will require a great deal of foresight and planning in order to be truly effective.

The systems being used by your HR teams will similarly need to be harnessed in order to make any potential programs a success- the complexity and functionality offered by your HR systems will very likely determine the effectiveness of your return to work policy. When looking at crafting a return to work program, it will be important to take the time to assess your existing HR systems and technology and ask hard questions around whether or not it will be up to the task of supporting your people.

 At Advanced we believe in the potential of technology to help empower your people. We know that your HR teams are far more than just admin robots which is why we’ve designed our Cloud HR Software to specifically tackle the challenges faced by HR professionals day in, day out, freeing your people teams to focus on the humans not the resources.

If you would like to find out more about how Cloud HR can help empower your HR teams and allow your business to craft a return to work program which safeguards the wellbeing of the people who make your business work, contact one of our friendly team members today.