8. Support sickness absence and return to work

This page describes best practice. It does not explain the law

As an employer, you need to support disabled workers and those with long-term health conditions during sickness absence and return to work. We will refer to both as ‘workers’ in this guidance.

Early intervention reduces the risk of someone eventually stopping work altogether. This risk increases the longer a worker has been off sick and you may be liable to pay statutory sick pay. There is information on how to comply with the law.

Returning to work can be a part of a worker’s rehabilitation and longer-term health. Tailored support can increase the chances of a worker returning to and remaining in work.

Make contact during sickness absence

When a worker is on sickness absence, make sure an appropriate person contacts them, to check on their wellbeing. Contact can help the worker feel valued and in touch with what is happening while away from work.

When contacting a worker for the first time, consider their personal circumstances. Also consider the reason they are off work. Think about appropriate timing, for example consider hospital treatment or appointments. You should contact them in the first four weeks they are off work.

If nobody has contacted the worker early in their absence, an appropriate person should reach out to the worker to agree the best way to keep in touch.

This should be someone the worker trusts and has a positive relationship with. The contact should be supportive, empathetic and focus on the worker's wellbeing.

Be flexible and agree how often you will communicate. This could be through calls, messages, home visits or visits to the workplace.

If a worker sees the contact as too frequent or intrusive, it could seem to be a punitive response to sickness absence.

Provide occupational health support

If you can, provide access to occupational health services when they are needed. Occupational health services can:

  • help with workplace assessments and adjustments
  • advise on referral to rehabilitation and support services
  • advise on returning to work
  • help promote good health

There are other options if you don't have access to occupational health services. Encourage workers to contact their GP or other healthcare provider. They can refer workers to support services. Healthcare professionals are also responsible for issuing Fit Notes.

Agree a return to work plan

Agree a suitable return to work plan with your worker. You should prepare this before they come back to work, with their input and agreement. Incorporate any relevant advice from healthcare providers and occupational health services.

Make sure the return to work is sustainable by continuing to make adjustments, for example:

  • for fluctuating conditions
  • adapting sickness absence trigger points when you need to
  • using disability leave

Phased returns can help a worker gradually come back to work in a supported way. Workers may not need to be back to their normal levels of activity to come back to work. A supported return can help their recovery.

Review risk assessments for workers if their absence was caused by work-related injury or ill health. You may need additional workplace adjustments.


How agreeing regular communication helped a worker return to work

An HR and finance manager at a small professional services organisation received an email from a worker who was in hospital. The worker's existing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had been triggered and they did not know when they would be able to come back to work.

What changed

The worker and her manager agreed that the manager would contact the worker by email every 2 weeks, to check in on her well-being. The manager was careful to avoid putting pressure on the worker to commit to a return-to-work date. They also agreed to have a phone conversation every month. The HR and finance manager was very clear with the worker about what sick pay she was entitled to. This stopped the worker from worrying about money while she was off sick. The worker had 6 months off work in total. When she felt well enough to return to work, she came back a few hours a week and phased in more hours over time, at a pace agreed by her and her manager.

The benefits

She is now working 4 days a week and, to reduce potential pressure, she is not working on time-critical tasks.

The CEO of the company asked the returning worker how they could help and what the company could do to support her. They talked about how avoiding triggering subjects could help. So with her permission, the CEO talked to other colleagues about her situation. Colleagues knew to avoid discussing triggering subjects and she has remained well and has been able to thrive in work.

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Updated: 2024-03-20