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The Power of Return-to-Work Interviews

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It happens that people leave work for a whole range of reasons that go beyond vacation and annual leave, and this is where the return interview comes into play.

Return-to-work conversations are about developing an understanding of why people are absent, what you and the employee's manager can learn from this, how you can better support your team - especially when returning to work - and what reasonable adjustments you can make. They are a proven method for reducing absenteeism and sick leave.

However, this requires that you understand why return-to-work conversations are happening in the first place and that you know how to conduct them well.

What is a return to work interview?

Essentially, return to work interviews help us understand why employees took time off, and with this knowledge we can improve the work, find out if there are problems with the work, help the employee and try to reduce future absences.

In some cases, a return-to-work conversation could reveal similar issues among employees that the company can then address:

  • Employee complaints about back pain could indicate that a company should invest in more ergonomic office furniture.
  • Headaches could indicate a need for better workplace lighting.
  • Frequent stress could be due to work overload or an aggressive company culture.

By knowing the reasons for a person's absence from work due to illness, you should be able to make changes for the better, perhaps in terms of the workplace environment, perhaps in terms of a gradual return. Ultimately, you hope to see better attendance and motivated employees, as well as preventing future absences.

However, it is important to understand that return-to-work discussions are not about accusing employees of feigning illness, but are simply a more accurate way to understand the reasons for absences. You should be friendly and open, never confrontational.


The first step is to get your superiors on board. Some will feel uncomfortable conducting the interview, insist they don't have time for it, or are unclear about the benefits. There is a lot of evidence of their effectiveness, but for them to work well, those who carry them out must first be trained.

Best practices for return-to-work discussions

Ideally, you (or the direct supervisor) should conduct a personal return-to-work interview as soon as the person in question returns to work, while the reason for the absence is still fresh in the employees' minds and thus the supervisor has a reasonable duty of care for the person in question's return can take over.

Interviews should always be conducted in a quiet, private room where you cannot be disturbed or overheard.

I have to admit that I don't like the term "interview" in this context. It suggests a formal, perhaps uncomfortable, pressurized or confrontational atmosphere. Reminds me of an old-style job interview. But it shouldn't be like that. In my opinion, it should be an informal conversation where the flow of conversation is free and friendly.

Effective return-to-work conversations should always begin with a greeting. If anything has changed while you were away, now is a good time to mention it. Try to explain why the conversation is taking place and emphasize that it is an informal conversation that should last no longer than about 10 minutes.

Ask about the reasons for the employee's illness, but be tactful and sensitive because you are here to learn, not to judge.

Use open-ended questions and listen, don't interrupt but let your employee speak freely.

To simplify the process, consider using a well-designed form specifically designed for return-to-work conversations. It helps with consistency and accurate data collection, especially when different managers in your company are leading the conversations.

The interview will provide insight into the reason for the employee's absence, but will also give you the opportunity to make sure that the employee is actually ready to return to work. You can also decide whether adjustments need to be made to ensure a smooth transition back to work. This could involve changes in tasks, workload or even working hours.

You may need to check whether the person needs additional support, for example due to personal or health problems. You could Refer to a human resources manager or an occupational therapist.

During the conversation, talk about the company's policy regarding absenteeism, especially if it has become a common phenomenon. Measures can also be discussed and agreed to help prevent further absences in the future.

At the end of the conversation, you should both sign and date the form to confirm what was discussed. This prevents disputes or misunderstandings from occurring in the future.

Key conclusions:

  • Carry them out as soon as the employee returns to work
  • Welcome the employee back
  • Ask him the reasons for his absence
  • Let him finish, listen with an open mind
  • Document the conversation

Questions to discuss about returning to work

Here are some questions that might get the conversation started. Of course, every return to work interview is different, so be flexible and discuss this before the interview begins. The point is not to be pushy, but keep your questions open and give the interviewer a chance to talk. And remember: use a private meeting room.

  • How are you, do you feel well enough to go back to work?
  • Have you been to your family doctor and do you have a medical certificate? If you are taking medication, are there any side effects we should be aware of?
  • Is it a recurring or persistent illness that we need to better adapt to?
  • Are there any adjustments we can make to make your return to work easier?
  • Are there adjustments we can make to avoid future absences?
  • Do you think work contributed in any way to your absence?

Do you have any questions for us or would you like to discuss something else?

When should a conversation about returning to work take place?

This is simple: a return-to-work conversation should take place as soon as the person returns to work. Don't hesitate. Some of the things you need to discuss should take place before you start work, especially if you need to make arrangements for the person concerned.

Final Thoughts on Return-to-Work Conversations

Because discussions about returning to work are a sensitive topic that requires a lot of skill, you and your managers should receive appropriate training.

It is critical that you and your managers take a consistent approach to these conversations and use the same conversation format for each employee. Don't choose people to interview based on whether they think someone is less honest than another employee. If you only interview employees who you suspect have an improper reason for being absent, you could be accused of discrimination.

Remember that the information obtained from the interviews must be kept secure and kept confidential in accordance with Data Protection Act.

Effective return-to-work conversations facilitate understanding, support, and adjustments for employees, promoting their well-being and reducing absenteeism. Explore streamlined solutions with IceHrm.

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