Line managers are key to return to work after sickness absence, survey finds


Getting line managers to support, engage with and “buy into” the return-to-work process is the most effective way of reducing both long- and short-term sickness absence, a study has argued.

The poll of 339 employers by Occupational Health & Wellbeing’s sister resource XpertHR found that the top five most effective means of managing absence were deemed to be:

  • improving line managers’ buy-in to taking an active role in absence management (18.3%);
  • introducing a new or revised absence policy (9.7%);
  • providing line managers with training in absence management (8.9%);
  • providing absence statistics to line managers (8.2%); and
  • improving how return-to-work interviews are conducted and what they discuss (7.4%).

Of these, the role of the line manager stood out above all else as being the key to successful and effective absence management, the report argued.

For short-term sickness absence, line managers could play a key role in reducing ad hoc or unnecessary time off by accurately measuring and proactively managing absence among employees; for example, through the use of return-to-work interviews.

For long-term sickness absence, line managers again had a crucial role to play in maintaining regular contact with the employees concerned

“They also need to ensure that all necessary interventions and support options are explored so as to maximise the opportunity for employees to return to work and productivity within a reasonable amount of time. If this is not possible, then line managers need to be comfortable following the process that may lead to the end of the employment relationship,” the report argued.

The research also looked at what employers felt to be the least most effective techniques. These were, it concluded:

  • introducing a new or revised absence policy (8.3%);
  • rolling out new measures, or improving existing ones, to encourage employees to look after themselves (7.1%);
  • using the Fit for Work service (5.1%);
  • adjustments as suggested by a doctor in a Fit Note (3.9%); and
  • introducing or improving an employee assistance programme (4.3%).

However, the report cautioned that, given the Fit for Work service was only rolled out in September 2015, “it is perhaps premature to write off its impact on sickness absence at this stage”.

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