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The road to recovery: Getting back to work after a long absence

A long absence from work can knock confidence and make the prospect of coming back difficult to face. With the right approach, employers can do much to support an absentee's return to work. Find out more.

It can be a daunting prospect to come back to work after a long absence, particularly if the time away was due to illness or injury. But recent research shows that employers can do much to aid successful reintegration into the workplace.

A study from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) found that almost three-quarters of absentees (74%) were able to return to work after benefiting from support offered by the department's Fit for Work Service pilots.

The service provided absentees with help on several fronts. It offered a mixture of approaches to stabilise or improve health, as well as negotiating (or giving guidance on how to negotiate) with employers about possible changes in the workplace, such as working hours or job role. A key aim was to boost confidence generally so that clients could take control of their situation.

Half of employees coming back to work changed their working hours, and almost as many changed working patterns (45%), duties (42%) or workload (41%). A smaller proportion changed jobs with the same employer (14%) or went to a different employer (5%).

The pilots demonstrated that employers can support absentees by keeping up communication and maintaining the goal of returning to work. They can also be open to suggestions about changing working patterns and duties, perhaps temporarily while employees gain confidence to go back to their normal roles.

Other practical measures employers can make include making reasonable adjustments for returners if they are disabled or have become disabled. If the sickness was work-related, the working environment might need to be changed or at least risk-assessed.

On a personal level, an absent employee may wonder what colleagues think about the absence and how much they know. Employees often need to be reassured that all discussions about their illness have remained confidential and that thought has been given to how the subject of their absence will be addressed with colleagues.

An understanding approach can do much to allay fears that can develop during long absences. Acas aims to increase employers' understanding of absence management and gives advice on how to support employees returning to work from long absences. It has published the Advisory booklet - Managing attendance and employee turnover and offers training on Absence management.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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