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Return-to-work interviews

by in GP Practice Management, HR - Human Resources, Staff

Many managers view the return-to-work interview as a five-minute chat to tick a box and say they’ve “supported” their staff member. But these meetings can be so much more than that.

When should I have the meeting?

As soon as possible after the employee has returned to work. Obviously some staff are part-time, you might be part-time, and things happen in general practice to throw your schedule off track. So, at a push, it should be within seven calendar days of the return to work. At the earliest opportunity you should also let the employee know that you’ll be having a meeting, and tell them when you hope it will be.

What should we talk about?

Well, the reason for absence would be a good starting point!

So what do you want to focus on? A good template can come in handy here as it can help to structure the discussion for you. Try to avoid scribbling away the whole time so that you can make eye contact and listen to the employee.

In my practice I get the admin stuff out of the way first – dates of absence, reason for absence, method of informing the manager, was a fit note provided, etc. This should take no longer than two minutes, leaving the rest of the meeting to get to the heart of the matter.

The first question should set the tone pretty well: “How are you feeling now?” It’s a nice open question which encourages the employee to talk.

Other things to cover include:

  • What sort of treatment/medical advice did they receive whilst off? (This lets you know the severity of the illness, but also if there’s anything they still need to do now that they’re back – upcoming appointments, any medication they need to take, whether the illness is likely to recur.)
  • Update them on what’s been happening while they’ve been away. (Coming back into the workplace after an absence, particularly a lengthy one, can be quite daunting so ensuring there are no surprises will help them to relax and feel less anxious.)
  • Is there anything they need from you now they’re back? (For example, a phased return, changes to the working environment, or time off for further appointments might be needed.)

Now this might sound like complete overkill if the person has just been off with a cold or a tummy bug or something self-limiting. But if they’re aware that they’ll have to have an interview each time they’re off sick, this can be shown to reduce the amount of “sickies” that employees pull. If you have someone who’s repeatedly off with “small-fry” issues, I’d be telling them I’m concerned about their overall health as they seem to pick up quite a lot of bugs, which is unusual for a generally healthy person. Offer them an Occupational Health referral because you’re so concerned.

The interview is also a good place to highlight to the employee where they sit in terms of your absence policy. If you have attendance targets that staff are expected to achieve, this is the time to tell the employee where they are. That way, again, there are no surprises and if they continue to have lots of sickness, and further down the line you have to look at formal action, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

What should I document?

Again, if you have a good template, you can just complete the form as a record of the discussion. And I would document all of it. If the employee said they felt fine, write that down. If they request any additional support write it down, and confirm whether you’re able to provide it.

Importantly, both parties should sign off the document at the end of the meeting.

These documents are your evidence of what support and consideration you have given to the employee. I’ve chaired many absence hearings where a case for dismissal has fallen apart because there has been either no documented evidence that meetings took place, or they haven’t been signed and the employee has accused the manager of falsifying the records.

Overall the meeting doesn’t need to take longer than 5-10 minutes if it’s fairly straightforward, and if you stick to a structure more complex cases shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. But the payoff is in the long run. If you end up having to dismiss a staff member for attendance, this is your evidence that you’ve done your bit. And on a positive note, if your staff know that these meetings are for their benefit because you’re genuinely interested in supporting them, they’re less likely to go off sick and more likely to work hard for you.


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