Return to work interview after stress (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will talk about the return to work interview after stress, how is sickness absence a problem, some tips for managing the interview, an example of a return to work questionnaire, how to conduct the interview, and additional considerations.

Return to work interview after stress

The return to work interview after being signed off due to stress, is used to reinforce the employees’ importance to the business letting them know about what has been going on during their absence.

In addition, it helps to monitor the employee’s progress when going back to work and ideally to set reasonable goals in areas such as workload, regular breaks, and impact on work-life balance.

Employers are increasing their awareness about how absence due to stress has a huge impact on any business, no matter if it is large or small.

According to Cordell Health, “High staff turnover is expensive, so it makes business sense to reduce the chances of employees leaving as a result of work-related stress. 

The key to preventing an employee from leaving is often good communication and understanding of their issues and frustration.”

Subsequently, a return to work interview will have a very important role if employers aim to employees and reduce turnover.

On the other hand, something vital for the rehabilitation and return to work is the communication with the employee at various stages of their stress-related absence.

It doesn’t mean employers must contact their employees every day to ask them when they will come back but ensure someone from the company contacts the employee at least within the first week.

Consequently, when the employee is approached for the interview they know their employer is genuinely concerned about their health and just want to help in the recovery process and not just find reasons to fire them as it is thought among employees.

How is sickness absence a problem?

Indeed it is a real problem and major public health and economic problem.

According to a study commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation:

“Evidence suggests that 28.4 million working days per annum are lost due to ill-health and most long term sickness absence is due to mental health problems such as stress, depression, and anxiety. It is well documented that depression and anxiety are associated with work stress and are one of the most prevalent causes of work-related ill-health and of working days lost through work-related injury or ill-health.”

Furthermore, little is known about how effective strategies and interventions implemented by employers really are.

If employees can successfully adapt back to their job roles and manage their symptoms after returning to work is still unclear where follow-ups are needed.

Tips for managing the return to work interview

When managing the return to work interview of an employee who has been signed off due to stress based on the tips proposed by Cordell Health:

  • Consider the interview as the opportunity to ensure the employee’s issues are fully explored.
  • The employee needs to perceive open communication and support from their employer. Try to make the conversation as informal as possible.
  • Be objective and leave your own feelings and opinions outside the room. Listen carefully and show an interest in what they have to say, even if you feel that the employee is being unfair.
  • Try to fully understand the cause of their stress from their perspective, so you can work with them to reduce possible triggers and barriers to returning to work where possible.
  • Using the HSE management standards for work-related stress as a framework for discussion is useful to talk about aspects such as demands as the workload and work environment, control as to how much influence and autonomy they have when doing their work, support as the encouragement, sponsorship, and resources the organization provides, relationships as promoting the positive working environment and the role they have within the organization.
  • Discuss with the employee any medical advice given by their GP or OH practitioner in terms of the adjustments that can be made by the organization.
  • It is important not to create unrealistic expectations or to fail to deliver on promises that might further increase the employees’ stress.
  • Use the interview to reinforce the employees’ importance to the business and let them know all about what has been going on in their absence.
  • Agree on how their progress back at work will be monitored, and set achievable goals that consider areas such as workload, regular breaks, and impact on work-life balance.

Return to work questionnaire 

The HSE has a very useful questionnaire for employers and you will find there the causes of stress we have mentioned previously and some examples of the related questions:

  • Demands: 

“Did different people at work demand things from you that were hard to combine?” or “Did you have unachievable deadlines?”

  • Control:

“Could you decide when to take a break?” or “Did you feel you had a say in your work speed?”

  • Support:

“Did your manager give you enough supportive feedback on the work you did?” or “Did you feel you could rely on your manager to help you with a work problem?”

  • Peers:

“Did you feel your colleagues would helo you if work became difficult?” or “Did you get the help and support you needed from your colleagues?”

Here the employee has a column where they can be as detailed as possible about the problem and suggest adjustments. You can find the questionnaire here.

How to conduct the return to work interview?

According to Bethan Darwin, a partner with law firm Thompson Darwin indicates how A well-conducted return to work interview involving stress will assist in establishing:

  • The cause of the stress and whether this is down to factors outside work or within work or both.
  • How serious it is.
  • Whether the employee is well enough to be back at work.
  • What treatment or other support the employee is having.
  • What support the employer can offer. If the employer offers an employee assistance program or other benefits that could help, the interview is a good opportunity to remind the employee of their availability.
  • Whether there are reasonable adjustments that could be made.
  • Whether a medical or occupational report would assist.
  • Whether the employee is genuinely ill or using stress as an excuse for poor performance or short-term absenteeism.

Help and support when returning to work

As we have mentioned, the adjustments an employer can make to help their employer feel better at the workplace are important but there are circumstances where employees need to seek additional advice/support.

For example, occupational health services can help employees manage their physical and mental wellbeing even if they are off work.

If an employee decides to go back to work because they feel better, despite their health conditions, OH can help them plan a phased return or how certain adjustments can be beneficial to the employee’s health. 

Another option is the support provided to disabled employees that are protected by the Equality Act 2010.

Here, reasonable adjustments may be implemented to support disabled employees in their workplace.

Some of the proposed reasonable adjustments include making changes to the workplace, providing special equipment, or giving alternatives for other job roles the employee can perform.

Why is this blog about the return to work interview after stress important?

As we have discussed, the return to work interviews is very important to determine the risks and possible stressors the employee may be exposed to.

Having identified the risks, the employer has the duty to make sure they are minimized or reduced to guarantee the safety and well being of their employee. 

Intervention and recovery go hand in hand, this is why adjustments an employer can make to help their employer feel better at the workplace are important but there are circumstances where employees may need additional support from occupational health and even psychological therapy.

By offering strategies and support services even before they come back to work can help in the recovery process and can actually make them feel valued by their employers.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the return to work interview after stress

Can my employer sack me for being off sick with stress?

Your employer can sack you for being off sick with stress since they are not obliged to keep your job position open.

However, most employers follow a fair process where they give plenty of time to the employee to recover and attempt to make reasonable adjustments to help them go back to work.

How do I go back to work after stress leave?

Before you go back to work after stress leave, make sure you are ready to to go back, let your employer know about reasonable adjustments that can be made to help you with your recovery, ask for support or help from a colleague or your manager, identify your work stressors so you can have a better understanding and can even learn how to react to them.

What should a return to work interview include?

A return to work interview should welcome employees back and check if they are feeling well to go back to work, also update the employee on any changes that happened while they were absent, make questions to identify workplace adjustments that may be needed, confirm their absence record is correct and allow the employee to talk about any other issues they may need help with. 

How long can I stay off work with stress?

You can stay off work with stress for the first 7 days, after this period and if you are still feeling unwell, it is necessary to get a fit note from your GP.

Is stress a reason to be off work?

Stress can be a powerful reason to be off work, especially if your stress levels are too overwhelming that you have started to manifest several physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that are detrimental to your overall health.

References “Returning to work after stress. 10 Tips for managing the return to work interview”

Darwin, B. (2016, Dec.) How to conduct that return to work interview with an employee who has been off with stress. Retrieved from “Help and support for employers (return to work)” “Best practice in rehabilitating employees following absence due to work-related stress”

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