Return-to-work interviews do cut sickness absence rates

Two out of three employers believe that return-to-work interviews have cut employee absence rates, according to a study by Personnel Today’s sister publication, Employment Review.

The survey of 182 organisations, which together employ 705,000 people, shows that return-to-work interviews are highly regarded by human resources practitioners working in public sector organisations and companies of all types and sizes.

Most thought the introduction of return-to-work interviews either reduced staff absences (64%) or left them unchanged (29%), while only a few HR practitioners (7%) believed they could actually lead to an increase in absences.

A detailed breakdown of the figures shows that employers in manufacturing and production companies (70%) are the most positive about the use of interviews, while those in private sector services (63%) are less convinced, and those in the public sector (60%) are even more sceptical.

The technique also appears to work best for smaller employers, with 67% of organisations employing fewer than 250 people reporting a reduction in absences. Its effectiveness diminishes with an increase in the size of organisation, so that just 60% of the largest employers report that it works.

The organisations most likely to report a rise in absences following the introduction of return-to-work interviews were large private firms (10% among those with 1,000 or more employees) and the public sector (11%).

Employers probe staff on reasons for absence…

Most employers (85%) expect line managers to carry out return-to-work interviews with employees after every episode of absence, no matter how short, the Employment Review survey shows.

Other organisations using the technique use a range of trigger factors to decide whether or not a return-to-work interview is necessary.

Some of these organisations (15%) use a number of different trigger factors to try to cut down on unnecessary absences.

Where interviews are not universal, the common factors used in deciding whether or not to interview the employee are:

  • a discretionary decision by the line manager (13%)
  • after a specified period of absence (12%)
  • once a number of short-term absences add up to a prescribed cumulative total (8%).

Among a small minority of organisations (7%), HR may trigger a return-to-work interview at its own discretion.

Universal return-to-work interviews are most common in the public sector (90%), but are also widely found in manufacturing (88%) and in private sector services companies (80%).

Line managers are twice as likely to exercise discretion in private sector manufacturing as in the public sector, and cumulative total absences are five times more likely to be used as a trigger in the private sector than the public sector.

…and most keep written record

Return-to-work interviews appear to be among the best documented people management techniques used by line managers, the study suggests.

Just one in 20 organisations (5%) taking part in the survey said that no formal record was made following a return-to-work interview, while most write up a range of information.

The most commonly recorded information includes the full details of the reason for the period of absence (91%), a brief summary of the interview (75%), and any further actions to be taken (70%).

But while 74% of public sector employers record any decision about whether or not to refer the employee to occupational health, this practice is followed by just 55% of firms in the manufacturing and production sector, and 32% of those in private sector services.


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