Managing a return to work
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The role line managers play in helping employees return to work

Long-term sick leave, usually defined as four or more weeks, makes up just 5% of employee absences. Yet it accounts for 40% of time lost due to ill-health. This means that in the UK in 2013, out of the 131m working days lost to sick leave, around 52m of them were due to long-term absences.

Mental health issues like stress, depression, and anxiety, and physical conditions like musculoskeletal injuries and back pain are responsible for most long-term leave. There’s also often a link between the physical and the mental, with people with physical conditions presenting with mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression. This can further complicate the recovery process, with these mild mental health issues leading to poor management of a condition, fear of returning to work and, ultimately, longer periods of leave.

As well as accounting for a huge amount of lost time, long-term leave is associated with a reduction in the probability of someone coming back to work. While some conditions will never allow employees to return, there is growing understanding that, with the proper support from employers, people’s return-to-work outcomes can be vastly improved.

The barriers to a return to work

When staff feel unable to return to work after an illness, not only is it a blow to the person and their family, it’s also disruptive to the company. The combination of lost skills, higher recruitment costs and lower staff morale are damaging to employee engagement and productivity.

So, why does it happen? Existing work factors are cited as one of the main reasons for people taking longer absences or failing to return altogether. Managers who offer little or no support, high job demands and lack of opportunities for adjustments are a triple threat to vulnerable individuals struggling with serious conditions.

Five ways to help employees return to work

Line managers are employees’ first point of contact, so they’re a good point at which to begin improving the back-to-work process within your organisation. Clear sets of behaviours, such as those outlined in this return-to-work guide from CIPD, will improve the outcome for employees on leave. Below are five points to aid line managers in helping staff navigate the return-to-work transition.

  1. Begin from a place of goodwill
    Social support at work is directly related to high job control, high performance and low depression. It also has implications for the success or failure of a return-to-work process. The Institute for Work and Health reviewed return-to-work interventions and found that goodwill and mutual confidence greatly contribute to their success. Make it clear that you respect your employee’s needs and wellbeing, and work with them towards an outcome that ultimately benefits you both.
  1. Get in touch and stay in touch
    Maintaining planned contact with an employee on leave is associated with a range of positive return-to-work outcomes, and can help to relieve any anxiety they may feel about returning. Regular contact also ensures they don’t feel alienated from everyday office life, and allows you to get practical information to help with planning absence cover and actions to help.
  1. Meet people half way
    It’s in no one’s interest for people to return to work before they’re able. Where health conditions allow, however, a staged return can give individuals a sense of normality and perceived control over an illness, as well as providing social and financial benefits. Where employees are willing and able, a gradual return-to-work programme can be combined with physical and/or psychological rehabilitation to help ease the transition.
  1. Hold an honest back-to-work interview
    Even in situations where employees return in full physical health, they may have ongoing mental health issues that can affect their work and wellbeing. Take the opportunity to have an honest discussion with them about how they’re feeling and how they’re adjusting back to work. This also gives you the opportunity to talk about reasonable adjustments they may need in the workplace.
  1. Be aware of mental health issues
    It’s an uncomfortable truth that employers are generally better at dealing with physical illnesses (even life-threatening ones) than mental illnesses (even mild ones). This is often due to a simple lack of knowledge, which can be compounded by an employee’s potential reluctance to disclose a problem. Does this sound familiar? A programme on recognising symptoms of mental health issues like depression and anxiety will help increase the support you can offer and reduce poor return-to-work outcomes.


Employers should not overlook the vital role of line managers in the return-to-work process; they can be the difference between its success and failure. It makes sense to equip them with the training and the tools to make their contribution a positive one.