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Managing a Return to Work after Long-term Absence

This guidance, issued by the CIPD together with Bupa, aims to provide information on effectively managing an employee’s return to work after long-term absence.

It suggests that everyone has a role in the return-to-work of an employee:

  • Returning individuals need to prioritise self-care and self-management to sustain their health and work.

  • Colleagues can provide valuable practical and emotional support.

  • Line managers can help returning employees access the work adjustments and support that they need to work effectively.

  • People professionals can ensure organisations have compassionate and flexible absence management policies, and rehabilitation approaches to accommodate individual needs.

The need to review existing provision to offer adequate support has been strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic with the emergence of post-COVID syndrome, or long COVID. The key considerations for managing an effective return, including for those suffering from long COVID, are covered by this guidance.

Long-term absence is usually defined as four weeks or more of continuous absence. According to the CIPD’s 2021 Health and Wellbeing at Work report, the most prevalent conditions responsible for long-term absence are:

  • mental ill health (such as clinical depression and anxiety)

  • musculoskeletal conditions (such as neck strain and repetitive strain injury, including back pain)

  • stress

  • acute medical conditions.

Having good absence management practices in place and being prepared to manage a return will give the returning employee the best chance of getting back to work safely, confidently and in a timely way, says the guidance.

The guidance aims to provide an introduction to supporting a return from long-term sickness absence and sets out the reasons why action is needed, supporting HR professionals to develop a business case should further resources be needed. The principles of shared responsibility for supporting returning employees and the guiding principles to support the return-to-work journey are outlined. HR professionals are encouraged to review and update existing policies and practices in light of recent learnings from research.

Legal obligations

Employers have a legal obligation to absent and returning employees. An awareness of relevant legislation is important to avoid discrimination and ensure fair treatment of absent employees. The guide covers:

  • the Employment Rights Act 1996

  • the Equality Act 2010

  • the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

  • Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

  • fit notes and proof of absence.

The guidance is available here.

CIPD June 2021

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