Getting sick employees back to work: what you need to know

by Janie Smith09 May 2014
Focusing on what sick or injured employees can do, rather than what they can’t do, may be the way forward for Australian businesses.

Professor Dame Carol Black, the expert adviser on health and work to the Department of Health, in England, chair of the Nuffield Trust and principal of Newnham College in the University of Cambridge, is an advocate of fit notes, which set out what duties employees are able to do, rather than the traditional medical certificate which says what they can’t do.

Getting people back into work after an illness or injury is crucial for having a healthy and engaged workforce, which increases the quality of what the business produces, whether it’s in the public sector or the private sector, Dame Carol told HC Online.

“If you’re in health, the reason you want as many people healthy and engaged in work is to look after patients. We know, for example, that disengaged workers in the health service at home contribute to the increased mortality rates in our hospitals. We’re not talking here about profit and the bottom line, we’re talking about people’s lives and quality. If you were in the private sector, it would be important to improve the bottom line.”

Dame Carol, Dr David Beaumont, the incoming president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and Diego Ascani, general manager and head of insurance at Xchanging Australia, give their views on what HR needs to do to get people back to work.

Make sure the returning employee is given suitable duties

It’s the job of HR and, if available, the return to work coordinator, to make sure returning employees are given duties that suit what they can do, said Ascani.
“The key function of that HR and return to work coordinator duty is to identify if the person hasn’t got full capacity yet, suitable duties to tide them over until they can return to their pre-injury duties. It has to be the right kind of work.”

Identify potential issues early

Dr Beaumont said it was common for HR to call him for advice when a situation of long-term absence had become so complicated, the business was just looking at how to get rid of the employee.
“If I could just say one thing, it would be early intervention. We’ve got to do things early and we’ve got to rope in everybody. This is all about communication.”

It’s important to identify potential barriers to an employee’s return to work early, Ascani added.

“HR is sometimes in the best position if there has been historical friction between the employee who is injured and their manager, that has to be highlighted very early because you can deal with it much better than when the person is physically or mentally ready for work but there’s that last barrier, which is their manager. If you find that out the day they’re meant to resume work, when it’s been cleared and you’ve jumped three or four hurdles already and haven’t anticipated the final hurdle, it scuttles everything.”

Know when you need extra help

According to Dr Beaumont, about 80% of cases of long-term medical leave will go smoothly, but the other 20% will face issues.

“Where HR comes in is to help educate their managers to spot what the factors are that mean something is going to go wrong and then support them through that process. That’s where the HR professional also needs to know their own capability and to know at what point they need to seek additional help. Often that will be from an occupational health professional.”

Make sure the return to work is sustainable

“The battle is only half won once you’ve got someone back to work,” said Ascani.

“Every case is different, but HR has a key role to play in ensuring there is a plan and that it is a sustainable return to work. It’s all too easy for someone to encounter another issue with management or something else, know what the other side of the world looks like staying at home and then quickly just going back to the former state.”


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