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Devising a suitable return to work plan

As an independent Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant, offering return to work services and sickness absence management, I have a particular interest in return to work planning. 

All cases and clients are different, so no plan is the same – and I love the challenge. A tailored approach is required for each and every individual, depending on their health, motivation and work demands. Applying the bio-psychosocial approach in my work, I have been devising return to work plans for over 10 years for those suffering from various mental health and physical conditions. Developing a suitable return to work plan is one of the most useful tools for managing sickness absence. But what is a suitable Return to Work Plan and how to devise it?

My approach is very simple: I focus on the individual’s capabilities and what they CAN do, rather than what they cannot do. Taking into account their known restrictions and symptoms, I build the return to work plans on my clients' ABILITIES, rather than limitations. 

Below, there are some of the questions about return to work planning I am frequently asked by HR practitioners and Line Managers.

Why devise a return to work plan?

Initiation return to work discussions and proposing a return to work plan to your absent employee demonstrates your duty of care towards the affected individual.  Your employees appreciate support and help offered. This approach helps to improve workplace relationships and boost the workplace morale. And of course, successful return to work planning helps to reduce the cost of sickness absence. 

What if it is unclear whether an employee is fit for work? 

When there is no return to work medical guidance in place or 'unable to return to work' recommendation is received, it needs to be determined what kind of work is unsuitable for this employee and how long for – and what kind of work IS suitable. What are the barriers and timescales for their return to work in a safe and sustainable manner? It is important to match the demands of the specific job to the individual's capabilities and limitations. Engaging treating practitioners in the return to work process may be required.

Do we need to wait until the absent employee has recovered from their illness 100 percent?It is a well-known fact that being in work is good for people. In most cases, there is no need to wait until someone is 100% fit, before offering return to work help. Return to work should be arranged in a timely manner and should be completed within the appropriate timescales. 

What is the appropriate duration of a phased return to work plan? 

There is no straight answer. The duration of a return to work plan depends on many different factors, amongst which are:

– The individual's symptoms and how they manage these symptoms

– Any side effects of the medication taken

– Whether the employee’s cognitive functioning may be affected

– The type of the job they are contracted to do

– Any particular tasks causing difficulties

– Whether work and life style balance is affected

– The workplace support and adaptations provided


How to devise a suitable return to work plan? 

First, the aim of the Return to Work Plan needs to be established. Because you cannot hit a target if you cannot see it! Also, a return to work plan should to be:

– Structured

– Flexible

– Should have clear goals

– Should include realistic, timely and achievable timescales


What should be included in the return to work plan? 

– Start/end dates are to be established, even as a guideline

– Working hours increase

– Tasks increase

– Monitoring arrangements

– Rehabilitation recommendations regarding workplace adjustments


What if things do not go according to plan?

It happens, of course. A detailed review of the situation will need to be arranged, to discuss the problems and concerns of all parties. An action plan is then developed to overcome the identified barriers and get the return to work back on track. Amongst these barriers, it is not uncommon to uncover underlying or unreported issues or medical concerns – all of which need to be considered and discussed. The employee’s treating practitioners’ guidance may need to be sought. The aim of this article is to provide an overview and general guidance for HR practitioners and Line Managers regarding devising a suitable return to work plan. Each return to work plan should be devised individually and should be tailored to the needs of both, the affected individual and their employer. The basis for any successful return to work is a strong robust Sickness Absence Management policy, clearly outlining employers' and employees' responsibilities.

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