How to improve your return to work interviews



Read time
7 mins


Learn how to conduct and improve your return-to-work interviews to make certain your staff are engaged, productive and happy in their work

Have you ever found yourself staring at your email inbox when you’ve returned to work following a holiday? Hundreds of emails have added up, you don’t know what tasks need to be carried out, and you don’t know where to start. This can tire employees out before they’ve sat at their desk, and this feeling is the same for employees who return to work after a long absence – be it maternity leave or sickness.

During an employee’s leave of absence, a lot can happen in an organisation, which means employees need to be updated on the latest changes when they return, whether it’s to a physical place of work, or working remotely. With return to work interviews, HR and line managers can help keep employees up to speed, while also addressing the reason for absence in the first place. But how can HR and line managers ensure that their return-to-work interviews are as effective as they can be? Here we explore the benefits of return to work interviews and share how you can improve these interviews to retain and motivate employees.

What is a return to work interview?

A return to work interview is a meeting held by a line manager with an employee who has returned to work after a period of absence. This interview serves as the time to welcome the employee back and to let them know what has occurred at the organisation during their absence. If an employee was on parental leave, this interview gives managers the chance to ask how the employee is coping with parenthood. If an employee was off sick, return-to-work interviews give you the opportunity to discuss their health in more detail and find out if they are fit to work again or any considerations that need to be factored into the workplace or routine for that employee.

What are the benefits of carrying out return to work interviews?

One of the key benefits of carrying out return to work interviews is that it can help you gain a better understanding into the reasons for, and nature of absences.

Employees might be going through a serious personal matter, they may be grieving the loss of a loved one or may not want to come into work due to workplace bullying – either way, asking them sincerely during the return-to-work interview can help you understand the underlying reasons that may need addressing. Once they have opened up to you, you can then work with them to come up with solutions or workplace adjustments so that they feel ready to return.

Return to work interviews also give you the chance to update employees on any workplace news that has occurred in their absence. During the pandemic for example, organisations had to make some staff redundant or give new roles and responsibilities to existing employees. For employees who had been off during this time, due to sickness or other reasons, a return to work interview is the perfect time to let them know about all of the changes that have occurred and what this means for them as well. This update can help employees feel comfortable and prepared to come back to work.

By carrying out return to work interviews, you can also show employees that you take absences seriously. This, as a result, could help to deter employees from pulling sickies.

However, such benefits can only be experienced when return to work interviews are managed effectively. If HR teams or line managers don’t ask the right questions, or don’t tell employees the purpose of the interview, they won’t get the results they’re hoping for. Employees may also feel like their organisation doesn’t truly want to know why they were off for a period of time or how they are feeling – leading to less morale and poor employee engagement when they are back to work.

When should return to work interviews be carried out?

The short answer: as soon as possible.

It’s best to conduct the interview on the day the employee returns to work so that you can find out if they are fit and ready to be back.

Are return to work interviews compulsory?

No, they are not a legal requirement, but it is recommended that you carry them out. Your company policies may require back to work interviews under certain circumstances, for example a sickness absence exceeding ten days.

When you are conducting the interviews, make sure you treat all employees fairly and equally to protect yourself from potential claims of discrimination or unfair treatment.

If conducted in person, interviews should be held in a private room and make sure personal data you collect as part of your records is kept confidential – in line with the Data Protection Act.

How to hold an effective return to work interview

Return to work interviews are usually held by a line manager or by the HR team. If the interview is being conducted by the line manager they will need to have relevant knowledge and training in order to hold an effective interview.

Managers should know their organisations’ absence policy – and any recent changes to it – and should know about relevant employment laws such as the Equality Act 2010 to avoid discriminating against employees.

Once they are confident with their knowledge, they should prepare for the interview and understand the relevant data such as absence history and trends in the employee’s attendance, and ensuring support is available to the employee (if needed).

When carrying out the interview, managers should:

  • Hold the interview in private to make sure anything that is said remains confidential
  • Have a return-to-work form available – this ensures you follow the same format for every employee. Online HR software such as Ciphr HR will enable the form to be completed directly by the employee into the HR system
  • Make employees feel comfortable. Treat the interview as an informal chat so employees open up to you about how you might be able to support their return to work
  • If a paper-based return to work form is being used – the employee and manager should sign and date the form so that statements given cannot be disputed later. This is another benefit of using online HR management systems to manage the process as an auditable trail can be created and reported on in future
  • Make sure all notes are stored securely in line with data protection regulations, again, another benefit of using a secure hr system to store this information instead of paper-based records.

Return to work interview questions

The questions you ask to someone who is returning from maternity leave will of course be different to those you ask someone who has been on long-term sickness absence or on a sabbatical.

For those who have returned from long-term sickness absence, ask:

  • How are you feeling now?
  • Are you fit enough to be back in work?
  • Have you seen your GP or a pharmacist?
  • Have you been given any medication and are there any side effects I should be aware of?
  • Is this an ongoing or recurring condition?
  • Has anything work-related contributed to your absence?
  • Are there any adjustments that could help with your attendance?

As well as asking relevant questions, you should inform employees of any company changes during their absence (eg new starters, leavers, restructures) and give them the opportunity to ask you any questions as well.

By carrying out effective return to work interviews, you can warmly welcome employees back to work and let them know that you are available to support them with whatever they need. These interviews can help you create an open, transparent relationship between employees and managers, and give HR the chance to better understand and manage absences.

If your HR team wants to go a step further with efficiently managing absences, why not consider using HR software? With Ciphr HR, you can view, verify, and report on absence, sickness, and holiday. Request a demo here.