Given the range of health reasons an employee may take time off for, and the variable fitness requirements for different professions, there is no one-size-fits-all role that an employer should take in workplace rehabilitation. But broadly the employer’s role is to take appropriate steps to support the individual back to work and to ensure that the re-entry to work is sustainable. In general, good practice guidelines regarding rehabilitation focus on longer-term absences since, compared with shorter periods, these are more likely to result in difficulties returning to work.
Employers have a duty of care towards all of their employees and this does not cease when an employee is absent. The employer should expect to be involved in negotiations that facilitate timely re-entry to work, and should also bear in mind that return to work may not necessitate full recovery of that individual. Keeping in touch during absence is recommended, but this should be done in a way that is acceptable to and sensitive to the circumstances of the absent individual. Where occupational health services are available, employers should be referred or signposted to these as early as possible.
A very important feature of long-term absences is that they often result from long-term, chronic health conditions (or conditions at risk of becoming long-term). Many chronic conditions are treated as a disability under the Equality Act, which states that employers should take steps to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles a disabled worker faces.
Effective approaches to support a person who has been affected by a mental health condition will differ significantly from those required by a person with, for example, mobility issues. All employers would be advised to seek expert guidance on this aspect and proceed to make adjustments with the full involvement of the returning employee.
Sally Wilson is senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies