Return to work (RTW) after sickness absence

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Return to work discussions (or 'interviews') offer the opportunity to discuss with the employee their sickness absence from work, and any issues and/or concerns related to it. The discussion should be based on the information provided on the Sickness Absence Record form(s) or the Fit Note (statement of fitness for work) issued by the doctor. Any support needs or work adjustments that aid the RTW can also be addressed. Key information should be recorded using the sickness absence record pro-forma (found on the right-hand side).

Return to work discussions should take place following any sickness absence period, but especially so where the employee has had three or more separate periods of absence within the last six months, has been absent for more than two weeks, or if the manager has any other concerns related to the absence. This can help identify problems early on, and allows for reasonable and practical remedial steps to be taken, which can help prevent or minimise any future absence. Such discussions should not be time consuming and should remain informal. Managers must take a consistent and fair approach in all cases. Advice from the relevant HR Business Partner may be sought if the line manager has any concerns. If the RTW discussion takes place following an episode of persistent short-term absence, please see the additional guidance on holding an 'informal discussion' with an employee to address any absence concerns, which refers to specific areas to think about when holding the RTW discussion in such cases.

Where medical input is necessary (in order to reach a decision about a member of staff), a "management referral" of an individual can be made to the University Occupational Health Service so that a medical report can be obtained. This should be done by the head of department, or by a senior administrator, or HR Business Partner, acting on the head of department's behalf.  Where an employee has a known existing medical condition, or may be undergoing a medical treatment/monitoring, careful consideration should be given in the approach to such cases and further advice sought from the University Occupational Health Service or your HR Business Partner.

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What are Fit Notes?

The ‘Fit Note’ is a statement of fitness for work, which is issued by a doctor to indicate whether the employee is “not fit for work” or "may be fit for work” taking into account the doctor’s recommendations (one of four options listed on the Fit Note). Doctors can also make further comments. The note is additionally used for Social Security and Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) purposes.

During the first six months of sickness, each Fit Note can only cover a maximum period of three months.

Where a “may be fit for work” (taking account of the doctor's advice) Fit Note is issued by the doctor and one of the four options has been selected as a suggestion to facilitate a RTW, for example, a phased RTW, altered hours, amended duties, or workplace adaptations, further discussion with the employee will be necessary to establish appropriate and reasonable measures to assist with the RTW. Advice should be sought from your HR Business Partner and/or the University Occupational Health Service  before a RTW can be fully agreed by the department.

The form will indicate the period of time for which this assessment is valid, and whether or not the GP needs to assess the employee’s fitness again at the end of this period. If the statement does not refer to a subsequent consultation date, the employee will normally be expected to resume their usual full duties at the end of the statement period.  Any concerns related to the working conditions and duties following the employee’s RTW must be discussed with the University Occupational Health Service.

There may be occasions where an employee presents a Fit Note which suggests that some work is possible, but is not practicable to accommodate the adjustments – in such cases the Fit Note should be used as if it had advised ‘not fit for work’. In such cases, and in all cases where the ill-health may have a work-related cause, it will be particularly important to seek advice from the University Occupational Health Service and/or the relevant HR Business Partner before reaching a final decision and discussing this with the employee.

The Fit Note is not binding on the employer: unless and until the department has agreed that the employee may return, and any necessary support is in place, the employee will remain on sick leave.

Fit Notes do not affect the University’s current obligations in relation to the Equality Act.

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Employees who have been off sick for longer than 6 weeks or who have had a significant period of ill-health (e.g. a major operation) may feel concerned about how they will cope on return to full duties. A structured, gradual return to full duties over a period of time may be beneficial in some cases. 

The University has responsibility for deciding whether or not it is able to accommodate any changes suggested to facilitate a RTW. Suggested adaptations or adjustments should be reasonable and proportionate, and decisions about what can be accommodated should include an  assessment of the effect of the changes on the employee and others in the workplace.

If a phased RTW is possible, the department should agree any temporary changes to the job or hours and what support will be provided and for how long. This should be recorded in writing; and can be done by filling in the 'Sickness Absence Record pro-forma (found on the right-hand side of the page).

A phased RTW programme usually takes place over around 4 weeks, but in all cases it is recommended that full hours/duties can reasonably be expected to be fully resumed within 6 weeks. If reduced working is required for a longer period a temporary adjustment to the contracted hours/duties should be considered as an alternative.

The line manager and the employee should agree a timetable, duties, and working arrangements that will allow them to gradually increase their hours and/or duties until they have returned to their full role by the end of the agreed phased return period. The staff member’s progress should be monitored on a weekly basis. As individual progress can be variable, some flexibility may be necessary.  Managers should aim to reduce, not postpone, hours or duties to avoid development of a backlog. To achieve this, some duties may need to be temporarily re-assigned.

During an agreed phased RTW period (4-6 weeks), as long as progress is satisfactory, a staff member should be paid their normal full rate of pay regardless of the number of hours worked. However, extended (ie beyond 6 weeks) or repeated phased RTW programmes should not be undertaken without discussion with the University’s Occupational Health Service and/or the relevant HR Business Partner.

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Where the doctor has certified that the employee is not fit for work, individuals will not be covered during the specified period by the University’s insurance and should not carry out work for the University. Where a doctor has certified that an individual “may be fit for work taking account of the following advice”, the individual will be covered for insurance purposes as long as the medical (GP or University Occupational Health Service) advice is followed. In cases where an individual’s recovery allows them to return to full duties earlier than indicated by the GP it will be important that clear agreement is reached with the individual, and that this is recorded. It is advisable to seek advice from the University Occupational Health Service before allowing a return to work of an employee in all cases.

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