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How Employers Can Ensure a Successful Phased Return to Work

For some people, long term sick leave is the only option for some health conditions. But what happens when you're ready to return to work?

Dealing with a long-term health condition is never easy, and the added worries of income and risk to ongoing employment weigh on many people’s minds when having to take long-term sick leave. With statistics showing a steady increase in people suffering from multiple chronic illnesses, as well as an ageing population that is retiring later every year, the importance of wellbeing for people with long-term conditions is only likely to grow.

For those suffering from these conditions, a long-term absence from work is sometimes the only option available to ensure a return to health. This can be a difficult path to navigate for both employer and employee, however, and it is important that the correct procedures are followed.

Even if employees are not physically present at work, it is still possible to implement strategies during sick leave, and especially during a staff member’s phased return to work that will ensure workplace wellness. This will ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible for the business and employee, and that both parties benefit as a result.

What is a phased return to work?

A phased return to work is a system whereby adjustments are made to accommodate for an employee returning after long-term sick leave (generally four weeks or more). A phased return operates under the understanding that the working conditions will be temporarily altered, allowing them to adjust either mentally or physically to being back in the workplace. This can vary from altering working hours to assigning the individual more manageable tasks.  

This period of transition can vary depending on the type of work and the working conditions themselves, as well as the nature of the condition the employee has been suffering from. On average, however, a phased return lasts between one and six weeks depending on these circumstances.

A phased return to work can be an effective tool, providing a period of readjustment for both parties. By returning to work and undertaking lighter or altered duties, the employee has the opportunity to return to a regular daily routine and the mental stimulation of work without exacerbating their condition. Employers can also reduce the potential of costly staff turnover by ensuring the employee feels supported during their return to work, minimising the likelihood of their resignation/relapse.

Communication

As with any wellbeing strategy, communication is always the foundation for success. It is advisable that the employer opens a regular dialogue with their employee as early as possible, long before staff members return to work. By maintaining regular contact, businesses can not only maintain good relationship with their staff, but can gain insight into their employee’s health situation and any new medical information that could affect future working conditions.

While regular communication can be useful, this will need to be altered depending on the sensitivity of the situation and the various conditions in question.

It is important to establish boundaries early on in order to prevent the employee from experiencing unnecessary stress. Let the employee know how often you will be in touch or discuss this with them, depending on if regular contact is required to cover the role.

Some individuals may appreciate regular communication; others may appreciate regular company updates, whereas in certain situations no communication may be the most effective approach.

Discussing the employee’s preferred method of contact is also advisable. For someone suffering from stress or a mental health condition or for someone hard of hearing, regular phone calls could potentially hinder their recovery process.

Implementing a plan

The nature of the changes that will be made to the employee’s duties or schedule will heavily depend on the reason for their absence, and the type of tasks they are used to performing in their place of work and the medical advice they have received.

For example, someone returning to work after a physical condition may not be capable of hard labour, but could work in administration or perform lighter duties. For someone suffering from a mental health condition, it might be prudent to reconsider long hours or tasks that increase stress for the individual during their phased return.

If such changes are not possible, simply decreasing the employee’s working hours could facilitate a more manageable return to work. For example, certain physical conditions may not prevent the employee from performing their usual tasks, so long as they only perform them for short periods of time.

Any kind of arrangement, of course, should be discussed between the employer and employee to ensure both parties are informed as to what can be expected. It is also important that employers consider the medical evidence available. This is particularly important when agreeing the length of the phased return. Both parties need to be clear that the phased return is a temporary measure, with the expectation that there will be review on the end date as to whether the employee can return to full duties. It may be possible that further amendments/adjustments may need to be made to the role or hours.

What about the pay?

Due to the temporary nature of a phased return to work, in the majority of cases, businesses will continue paying full-time wages to an employee that returns to part-time hours. This promotes a positive atmosphere and ensures financial wellbeing for staff members.

This is not always a contractual obligation, and some businesses may choose to adjust an employee’s pay on a pro rata basis. However, this must be communicated and agreed upon with the employee before any paperwork is signed.

It is important that the employee is thoroughly informed in these circumstances, as it may affect their decision to reduce their working hours. For example, some people may choose to return to work on a full-time basis, but take on lighter duties if they feel they are able to do so (and if this can be accomodated), if they do not wish to have their pay reduced.

Even if an employer chooses to proportionally alter an employee’s pay, they are still contractually obligated to provide any full-time additional benefits that were available to the employee. Circumstances will differ depending on whether an individual earns a salary as opposed to being paid an hourly rate, and this will need to be taken into consideration when implementing a plan.

Contractual obligations regarding salary are extremely important, and it is advisable that employers seek legal advice if they are unsure about the requirements.

Reviewing the situation

During a phased return to work, it’s likely that the employee’s circumstances will change. Even if a strategy has been agreed upon and implemented, health conditions can be unpredictable, and it’s therefore important that employers remain adaptable and sensitive to the needs of their employees once they have returned to work.

If the situation permits, employers can opt to conduct regular reviews and meetings. Not only does this maintain an open line of communication, but it also allows employers to keep on top of any progress with regards to the employee’s health and wellbeing.

Recovery could be slower (or quicker) than expected, and strategies may need to be altered to take into account how the employee is coping with the tasks that have been agreed upon. In some cases, it could be necessary for the employee to go back on sick leave if being at work is hindering their recovery process.

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In circumstances where employers do not feel adequately informed to deal effectively with an employee’s health condition, it is advisable to seek professional advice, and that staff are fully trained in managing sickness absence.

In doing this, they can ensure that each long-term absence is dealt with in the appropriate way, that sufficient wellbeing strategies are being implemented, and above all that each situation is approached with the empathy and understanding it requires. Through these methods, both businesses and employers will stand to benefit from a phased return to work.

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