Managing return to work

The return-to-work discussion or interview

Return to work should be discussed with the employee as soon as is reasonable.

It is not generally necessary to wait until the person is 100% fit to discuss and plan return to work. In fact, the earlier the discussion is started the less daunting return to work is likely to be

When the employee is back at work, the person coordinating return to work should conduct a return-to-work interview or discussion. This is particularly important if return to work has not been discussed during the employee’s leave of absence.

It is important to make sure the employee is given an opportunity to speak and to be heard. This discussion should cover:

  • discussion of the return-to-work expectations of the employee, with a clear explanation of policies regarding sick days, time off and other matters related to employee wellbeing
  • explanation of any changes in the employee’s role, responsibilities and work practices that have occurred during their absence discussion of how the employee’s symptoms and treatment impact on their work while also thinking about how this impact can be reduced
  • discussion of any adjustments that need to be made to ease the employee’s return to work, while being honest about the adjustments you can make and those you can’t, by explaining that some organisational factors are out of your control
  • explanation of the effect of any adjustments on an employee’s pay and other entitlements (e.g. effects of reduced hours or alternative work)
  • discussion about who, if anyone, needs information about the person’s health and what to tell them
  • the reaching of an agreement about when it would be appropriate to contact a doctor or family member if they become unwell at work

During these discussions there should be a focus on:

  • the employee’s abilities and their capacity to carry out their work, rather than on their limitations
  • the problems an employee experiences in the workplace and what actions can be taken to address these, rather than on details of the mental health problem

For some returning employees, especially those feeling anxious or lacking in selfconfidence, the return-to-work discussion can be stressful. You may want to use this letter template to let the employee know what you will be discussing so they can prepare for it. It can also be useful to have a third person present at the return-to-work interview. This may be a rehabilitation provider or a trade union representative.

You may want to use this return-to-work discussion template to guide your discussions.

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"In so many cases, managers or colleagues, they might think that there's a problem but they avoid it, they don't ask early enough. So by the time they do have the conversation, it's really difficult - people are on the back foot and it can get hostile. Managers need to be more proactive and have these conversations earlier. You can keep it low key, just check in with the person, ask them if they are getting the support they need."
HR Manager
*not her real name
"If someone broke their arm we wouldn't be worrying about whether or not we were liable, we'd just send them to the doctor. It should be the same for mental health problems."
OHS Manager
* not his real name
"Some employers think that if they accept that there is a problem, then that means they are accepting liability. Sometimes that stops them helping get employees into treatment. Actually they would be better off getting the person into treatment early - that's likely to reduce the risk of a stress claim. I recommend that where they can, employers offer to pay for two sessions of treatment without considering issues of liability."
Occupational Physician
*not her real name