How to plan the return to work for disabled employees

OH plays a key role in case management, including disability adjustments, and it is imperative to reflect on best practice

Effective planning to support the return to work of disabled employees after a period of absence can help ensure that their return is successful and sustainable. Steph More O’Ferrall and Paul Davey from Action on Disability and Work UK offer some advice to employers.

Employers will have policies and procedures that they will need to follow and, in this article, we highlight the benefits of taking a flexible and person-centred approach to their implementation

Case study: return to work

This example shows what happens when the need for support after a return to work is not identified, and how the situation improves with a flexible plan in place.

Action on Disability and Work UK was involved in a case where an employee took two periods of absence due to a mental health condition. Initially he took two weeks off and, although his sick note identified the cause as depression and stress, this was not discussed in any detail when he returned to work.

Two weeks’ absence fell under the radar of the standard absence management policy and so no follow-up was seen to be required. Unfortunately this meant that the employee struggled in work without any support in place and, over the course of the next six weeks, his performance and his mental health deteriorated. He was then absent for a further 10 weeks, which alerted his employer to the need to provide support to enable him to return to work successfully.

Standard procedure would have required a representative from OH, HR and the employee’s line manager to be present at meetings to discuss his case. However, being open to the employee’s own needs meant that he was given the opportunity to explain that he found the thought of talking through his situation with three people, two of whom he had not previously met, overwhelming.

An adjustment was made to allow him to have one to-one meetings with a manager who was specially allocated from his team to support him. During these meetings, a member of OH or HR was available on the phone to discuss the case and help with agreeing decisions if required. This is an example of a very simple adjustment that made a real difference to the employee and gave him more confidence about expressing his needs.

In this case we were able to liaise with both the employee and the employer and a number of adjustments were put in place, including:

  • For weekly team meetings the employee received the agenda in advance and was given the option to contribute his thoughts in writing beforehand. During the meeting he could also write any extra ideas on a flash card to pass to a colleague to be read out on his behalf if he was feeling anxious about speaking in front of everyone. If he was having a particularly difficult day, he could go somewhere quiet for 15 minutes to refocus and find calm without having to seek permission from his manager each time. The arrangement was that he would put a card on his desk to discreetly let the manager know that he was taking a break.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones allowed him to quietly focus on his own tasks when the office was particularly busy and his mind got crowded with all the noise and interruption. Being able to get on with his work in this way also helped to reduce his anxiety about his workload.
  • This employee also received weekly coaching sessions with one of our advisers around implementing coping strategies and communication with managers and colleagues. He also started to use a time management tool, which helped him to prioritise his work. This whole range of support empowered him to take charge and prevent the anxiety from escalating.

Whether an employee has been absent due to ill health or after acquiring an impairment, the first step is to set up a clear line of communication so that you can plan the return together. They will be an expert in their condition and how it affects them, so start by listening and do not be afraid to ask questions to make sure you understand their experience and have all the information you need.

Key to this is understanding any anxieties they may have about returning to work, as acknowledging feelings of anxiety is part of managing the process positively.

Timing is important; some people will be eager to rush back to work but, if they return before they are ready, it can cause further problems. On the other hand, too much of a delay can affect confidence and make it more difficult to come back. With your employee’s permission, involve their GP and any specialist healthcare professionals that they are consulting. Also, find out about any extra disability employment support that is available, in addition to engaging with your own OH provision, to ensure that the process is well informed.

A return-to-work plan

The clear structure of a thorough return-to-work plan is vital; below are some of the key areas you will need to consider.

Phased return

Many employees find that a phased return helps them readjust to working. Talk to your staff member about how many hours they think they could manage to start with and build in regular reviews so that their hours can be increased at a pace that is realistic and achievable. Your employee will let you know what they feel comfortable and confident in doing.

As well as looking at hours and work pattern, attention will need to be paid to the detail of how your employee’s duties are phased back in. This can include trialling new ways of working to determine what is most effective.

Reasonable adjustments
Ask your employee about what they perceive as potential barriers in the workplace and what solutions they can propose. Do not be afraid to start this conversation with what would work in a best-case scenario, even if, eventually, you have to scale back proposals on the basis of what is practicable and affordable.

Often it is a case of thinking creatively to come up with solutions, and taking an open and collaborative approach will give your employee confidence and allow you to decide together what adjustments you can reasonably make.

Access to Work scheme
The Government’s Access to Work scheme can provide funding towards a wide range of support, equipment and assistive technology.

Regular reviews
Frequent reviews of the return-to-work plan will allow both you and your employee to talk through any issues, deal with them early on and make changes. Reviews can be useful in identifying any triggers in the work situation that might have an impact on the employee’s health and enable you to develop strategies for managing them. Ensure that the employee is at the centre of the process and be led by their views and suggestions.

Disclosure to other colleagues

Be sensitive to your employee’s right to privacy and talk through if and how they would like to disclose their health situation to their colleagues.

This needs to be considered within the wider context of the workplace culture and how best to create understanding and support around any reasonable adjustments that have been agreed.

For example, if you are agreeing a lighter workload or a reallocation of duties, then consider how this can best be communicated to colleagues in order to manage any potential misunderstanding or negative responses.

Workplace buddy/mentor
Your employee may value the support of a “buddy” at work. This may be a colleague with whom they feel particularly at ease, who can provide extra reassurance and advice during the transition back into work. Another option is a mentor or coach who can give more structured, specialist support.

Disabled employee networks
If your organisation has a disabled staff network, ensure that your employee has information about how they may participate in this, if they wish. Peer support and the opportunity to discuss common issues can be very valuable.

A wellness recovery plan

Once an employee has successfully returned to work, you can take other measures to support their continued recovery and wellbeing. Drawing up a wellness recovery plan can be useful. This may include information about potential stressors, coping strategies and details of any reasonable adjustments in place. This plan should be reviewed regularly and can be kept confidentially so that those involved in supporting the employee have access to the information as and when it is needed.

Flexibility is key

Balancing the needs of your business and the pressures of workload and targets with the need to ensure that an employee’s return to work is successful in the longer term can be challenging. Line managers can benefit from support from senior management and HR to go beyond the minimum requirements laid down in policy if required.

Planning in the flexibility needed to respond to an employee’s changing needs will allow for effective solutions to be identified and assumptions avoided. Ultimately this will enable them to perform at their best and reduce the risk of further absence.

Action on Disability at Work UK is part of the West of England Centre for Inclusive Living and provides advice to support the recruitment and retention of disabled people in work. If you would like more information or advice on any issue relating to return to work planning and supporting your disabled employees, please contact the advice team.

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