Line managers and return to work: Great returns

The first stage of research designed to create a framework showing what management behaviour helps or hinders returning to work after long-term sickness absence has been completed. When finished, the research should provide evidence for good practice including early intervention, communication during sickness absence, line management support for people returning from sick leave, and flexibility about work and hours on their return to the workplace.

Sickness absence costs employers about £11bn per year, with long-term sickness absence contributing to up to 75% of absence costs. It is an issue that organisations are very keen to address and one which is high on the government agenda in the current economic climate.

The study was commissioned by the British Occupational Research Foundation and carried out by Goldsmiths College, with the support of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Health and Safety Executive, and Healthy Working Lives. The aim is to explore line managers’ behaviour in facilitating the successful return to work of staff on long-term sick leave caused by the four most prevalent conditions responsible for such absence: anxiety and depression, back pain, heart disease, and cancer.

Line manager role

For any individual diagnosed with one of these conditions, the thought of returning to work can be very daunting. This anxiety can become so overwhelming that they become reluctant to go back and so prolong the period of inactivity and isolation. This can have further detrimental psychological and physical effects on their health.

Much of the responsibility for supporting an employee during their return-to-work programme falls on the line manager. However, in practice, well designed and managed return-to-work systems are likely to fall short where line managers are ill-equipped to manage the returning employee. Furthermore, recent research has demonstrated that the line manager has an impact on the employee’s health while they are at work and when they are returning to work.

Line managers are likely to look for guidance from HR and occupational health (OH) professionals. But little is known about the role and impact of line managers in returning employees to work, or the behaviour they need to demonstrate.

For the initial stages of the research, there were five workshops involving 78 OH and 64 HR professionals. Views were sought on what line manager behaviour facilitates employee return-to-work, and what represents barriers. Participants drew from their own experiences and common themes were identified in discussion groups.

Beneficial behaviours

Of the 57 themes identified, the most common were communication, emotional and practical support, and flexibility. If the line manager communicates with the employee at an early stage of their absence and then clearly and regularly throughout, the return-to-work is more likely to be successful. Openness in communication between the line manager and OH and HR is also essential.

The benefit of emotional and practical support was the second most common theme. If the manager shows consideration, empathy and a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the employee, then they are more likely to feel valued and have a successful return to work.

In addition, it was suggested that the manager should work with OH and HR to plan the return-to-work process and accommodate practical support such as a phased return-to-work, a buddy system or allowing time off to see physiotherapists and counsellors.

The final notable type of behaviour, which is linked closely to practical support, is flexibility, including willingness to consider alternative roles and temporary adaptations to the employee’s job during their rehabilitation into the workplace.

This preliminary data, analysing the perspectives of OH and HR professionals, will form the foundations of the next stage of the research, which will entail interviews with line managers.

A survey will then be drawn up and sent to managers who are managing an employee about to return to work from long-term sickness absence. This will be followed up with another survey six months later to determine what management behaviour supported the returning employee or hindered them. Finally, a framework outlining the effective and ineffective line manager behaviours associated with return-to-work will be developed, with the aim of improving organisations’ and managers’ effectiveness in supporting employees returning to work from long-term sickness absence.

If you would like to be involved in the research, know of any managers and employees who fit the criteria, or wish to receive updates on its progress, then please contact Ben Hicks on [email protected], or visit our website.

Ben Hicks is a research assistant at Goldsmiths, University of London

For a comprehensive review of the workshops please see: Yarker, J, Hicks, B, Donaldson-Feilder, E, & Munir, F. (2009). Line Managers and Return to Work. Report on workshop discussions held on behalf of the British Occupational Health Research Foundation.


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  • The workshops were held at the HSE (23/2/9 for OH), the CIPD (24/2/9 FOR HR), Loughborough University (26/2/9 for OH) and Healthy Working Lives (13/3/9 OH and HR).

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