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Supporting an employee returning to work after long-term physical health absence

Mechanical engineer after returning to work

The most common physical health issues causing long-term absence from work are acute medical conditions, musculoskeletal injuries and back pain according to Fit for Work. If one of your employees has been long-term absent from work due to a physical health problem, it’s important to know how you can support them in their return to work.

For an employee, coming back to work after long-term absence can be stressful so the more you can do to help them; the easier you’ll make the process for them. And, in being as supportive as possible, you will directly help their physical recovery, whilst also protecting their mental health and wellbeing. This said, returning to work can help a person return to a sense of normality and has even been known to help with their recovery.

We’ve put together some general guidance to help you support an employee who is returning to work after long-term physical health related absence.

Fit note guidance

The ‘fit note’ is now used instead of the ‘sick note’, which focuses on what the employee is able to do rather than what they can’t do. The government website has put together useful guidance on what to do if you receive a fit note from an employee and how to fully utilise it.

Your responsibilities

As an employer, you have a responsibility to make your employee’s return to work as stress-free as possible. In addition, you are responsible for providing reasonable adjustments to their working conditions, in line with government advice, such as:

  • Induction programmes to update them on what has been happening in their absence
  • Phased return to work (working flexible or part-time hours for a fixed period)
  • Practical work aids and equipment
  • Temporary reduction of some tasks or allocation to other employees
  • Time off for ongoing medical appointments, support and care
  • Refresher training on relevant parts of their role
  • The option to work from home if possible.

For more information on making reasonable adjustments, absence, health and work issues visit the government’s website.

Phased return to work

Phased return to work can be a workable option for some and it means someone coming back to work on a gradual basis, which is agreed to by the employer and the employee. It can be done in stages and, in terms of workload, it can be anything from a few hours to a few days per week.

Everyone is different and situations will vary so the phased return needs to be flexible, tailored to the individual, planned well and reviewed regularly until the agreed date of full return to work.

Here is some guidance on phased return to work:

  • In terms of timescales, phased return can be from 1-6 weeks
  • Start with manageable hours as agreed with the employee
  • Offer flexible hours if needed
  • Reduce duties which could hinder recovery or cause more stress e.g. travelling or face to face customer meetings
  • Review timeframes so that the line manager and employee can adjust, where necessary, or ensure all is on track.

If an employee has been unfit for work for 4 weeks or more, an employer can refer them to Fit for Work which aims to reduce long-term sick leave by helping the employee develop a Return to Work Plan to suit their needs.

Building confidence

After long-term absence from work, your employee may be lacking confidence and need a boost. We have put together an article about confidence and how to boost it which you can share with your employee.

How we can help – Ben 4 Business

We can help support you as an employer on a range of issues and we offer specific HR support. If you need more information about how we can help you to support your people at www.ben.org.uk/ben4business.


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