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James Arquette


Chief Operating Officer

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Return to Work Interviews: what HR is doing right (and wrong)


Records indicate that the greater completion of Return to Work Interviews (RTWIs), the lower overall absence rates are.

But many organisations fail to achieve a high RTWI compliance because their line managers are either: A) poor at the process or B) lack the confidence to talk to their staff about sensitive health issues.

You could argue that the root cause of this is a lack of training for managers. In this article I'll take a look at the issue and provide some pointers.

RTWI - what it is and what it does

One HR tactic that has had a positive impact on absence in organisations has been the setting of an internal target known as the Return To Work Interview Compliance Rate.

RTWI Compliance Rate is the target date set by an organisation for which a Return to Work Interview should be conducted. The target compliance period will vary dependant on the sector and the organisation’s operational needs and processes.

RTWIs are designed to:

  • Welcome an employee back to work
  • Enable the line manager to look after the employee’s welfare
  • Inform the employee of any changes that may have occurred during their spell of absence
  • Establish if there is anything that can be done to support the employee
  • Highlight any absence trends
  • Reduce absence and improve attendance

An important aspect is that any RTWI questions must be tailored to suit the situation – something that most managers need training in.  For example, if an employee was off work due to a cough or cold, the questions used would be different than if the employee was off due to a stress-related absence.

21st Century work - pressures like never before

Workplace absence is an ongoing issue, particularly in today’s stressful times where often more is asked of staff for the same benefits. The difficulty to deliver maximum profits with minimum costs means workers and managers are experiencing pressure like never before. Just-In-Time strategies coupled with ‘lean’ personnel levels compound the problems, and loyalty is a rare commodity on both sides of the corporate fence.

Similar to the unions of the '60s and '70s, pulling a sickie or taking a sick day off was once (and for some still is) considered an institution and a right. Although the British have developed a better work ethic in recent decades, it is still considered fair game, especially if you work for a large organisation where the perception can be ‘someone else will cover for me’.

However there is also the flip side of the coin. With the recent proliferation of zero hours’ contracts many do not take the required time off for genuine sickness, or return to work too soon because of the fear of losing their jobs. This would be an awful situation should a whole department then come down with an illness, and one which would prove disastrous to the company. RTWI is proving a good solution to the problem, but many needlessly struggle with implementing the technique.

The scale of the problem, and a fix

To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, on a daily basis the UK loses around 920,000 equivalent days due to absence, which equates to an approximate cost of £74,500,000-£110,400,000. This data was derived from FirstCare’s daily absence barometer (figures were taken for September 15th 2016). The data is based upon absence trends identified across the 172,000 + employees covered by FirstCare, extrapolated up to the full UK workforce. 

In their efforts to ensure modern organisations remain healthy and retain productivity, astute bosses have turned to RTWIs as a means of managing this problem. However, many line managers fail to achieve a high RTWI compliance and therefore meaningful results. I believe this is mainly due to a result of a lack of defined company process and poor confidence levels.

Where it goes right

FirstCare has the biggest independent database of absence related instances in the country. It contains records of 12 million days of absence data developed over 12 years.

When working with a new client we have found that typically the RTWI compliance is just 50%. By working with them we seek to increase this to approximately 95%, often with the result that the length of each absence drops by 35%.

A particularly good real-life example is through our work with Watford Borough Council. The focus was on staff absence issues, and following 23.8% increase in RTWI compliance, the end result was a 44% absence rate reduction over 24 months. It shows the impact that RTWIs can have, however few organisations are getting it right.

Where it goes wrong

I believe there are two main factors that cause failure with RTWI implementations and these are:

  1. Poor process.
  2. Lack of confidence.

Poor process

The problem often comes right at the beginning and organisations are very poor in defining their processes.  These can include:

  • Setting unrealistic targets to achieve RTWI completions
  • Not monitoring set targets
  • Using the same RTWI questions for all absences, making them irrelevant
  • Not training line managers to be able to conduct RTWI interviews
  • Using manual systems so paperwork gets lost
  • Not following a recognisable audit trail
  • Not communicating the importance of RTWI

Lack of confidence

This issue is partly the results of poor process but also a lack of training and how it should fit into managerial activities.

  • Due to poor process definition managers use inappropriate tools such as antiquated systems, which fail to deliver to the required accuracy.
  • A lack of training leaves managers improvising which can lead to staff resentment and with each RTWI being different it becomes impossible to analyse results to a standard format.
  • A resentment that managers are having to do something that should not come under their remit.
  • An unwillingness and discomfort in asking what they believe to be personal questions.
  • All resulting in a perception that the process has no value.

All these issues can be addressed with a little guidance and proper training.

Procedure and training - the way forward

To conclude, RTWIs have proved an effective solution over recent years and are designed to explore reasons why a member of staff has had time off sick and assist them to cope or seek the appropriate professional help if required.

It is good for the organisation as it is seen as caring, and if serious issues are involved, identifies and starts addressing them at an early stage. This practice limits potential damage to both the individual and the organisation but it must be seen as being important or it can be conveniently ‘forgotten’. Clearly you can’t escape the fact that some employees see it as a bit ‘Big Brother’, but carried out sympathetically this perception can be reduced or avoided.

How organisations implement this technique has a direct result on how effective it is. Most fail to put in place the simplest of procedures, the presence of which would ensure success. This in turn affects confidence in the technique, leading to non-use and resentment. Managers are told they need to carry out RTWIs but are given little further support or training either personally or through the systems they have at their disposal. This leads to further lack of confidence and non-use.

In my mind it is simple. Get the procedures and training right, and you will be well on the way to success.

Author Profile Picture
James Arquette

Chief Operating Officer

Read more from James Arquette

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