Long-term absentees back to work through reintegration programme or return-to-work medicals?

As an employer, you are not always required to initiate a reintegration programme for employees on long-term sick leave. There are often more efficient ways to facilitate the return to work of long-term absentees. Annelies Feytons, corporate lawyer at Mensura, explains.

Monitoring the progress of long-term absentees is key for a successful return to the workfloor. Initially, this can be done by maintaining regular contact with the employee in question, particularly during the first six months of their absence from work.  

By regularly keeping in touch with employees on long-term sick leave, employers can gain insight in the progress of their recovery. When an employee lets you know that their condition is improving but that they are not 100% better yet, then you could look into the option of a progressive return to work.

When you are planning to start up the reintegration process through a reintegration programme, the first thing you need to consider is whether or not you have maintained regular contact with the employee concerned.

You maintained regular contact with the employee on long-term sick leave

Step 1: Preliminary medical exam before returning to work

If your employee is open to the idea of a progressive return to work, then you, as the employer, can advise the employee to undergo a preliminary medical exam in view of their return to work. The prevention advisor/occupational health physician (abbreviated PA-OHP) will then determine whether or not the employee in question is capable of resuming their contractual duties (possibly through restricted duties) on the planned date for their return to work. The good thing about undergoing this medical exam prior to returning to work is that the exam can be completed within the employee’s sick leave period. This allows the employer enough time to make any necessary changes to the workstation of the employee prior to their return.  

Step 2: Return-to-work medical exam

If your employee is going back to work sooner than originally planned, then you should request a return-to-work medical exam to be conducted by the external department for prevention and protection in the workplace. This medical exam is mandatory for all employees who are subject to a medical monitoring programme and who have been absent from work for four or more weeks due to illness or an accident. 

The advice offered by the PA-OHP—after looking at the various options for the employee who will be returning to work—is binding. The return-to-work medical must be completed within ten business days from the day of the employee’s return to work.  

What to do in the event of medical ‘force majeure’?

Some employers are unsure what to do when the PA-OHP decides that an employee is permanently incapable of undertaking their contractual duties, with no option for restricted work or other work duties? Can the employer in that case terminate the employment agreement by invoking medical ‘force majeure’?

The confusion arises from the amended article 34 of the Act on Employment Contracts *1 as well as article 72 of the Royal Decree of 28 May 2003 on the health surveillance of workers *2. Both articles lead to the following conclusions. When the PA-OHP decides after conducting a return-to-work medical that the employee is permanently incapable of undertaking their contractual duties, with no option for restricted work or other work duties, then it is not necessary to initiate a reintegration programme. In that case, the employer is entitled to terminate the employment agreement based on medical ‘force majeure’ as soon as the time frame for appeal has lapsed. If the employee decides to appeal the decision made by the PA-OHP, then he or she must do so within 7 business days from the date on which the reintegration assessment was received.

If the PA-OHP did make a number of recommendations for restricted work or alternative work duties, then the reintegration programme must be completed.  

*1 Due to new legislation in Belgium on the topic of employee reintegration and due to pressure from European courts, article 34 of the Act on Employment Contracts was amended as follows: “Incapacity for work resulting from illness or an accident which permanently prevents the worker from performing the agreed-upon work duties can only lead to termination of the employment agreement due to force majeure after a reintegration programme for the worker in question has been completed in accordance with the stipulations of the Act of 4 August 1996 on the well-being of employees in the performance of their work.”

*2 “Subject to the application of article 71, the worker who has been declared permanently incapable of undertaking their contractual work duties through a final decision by the PA-OHP shall be kept employed by the employer in line with the recommendations made by the PA-OHP. The employer must in that case follow the procedures outlined in articles 73/3 to 73/7 to draw up a reintegration plan.”

You did not maintain regular contact with the employee on long-term sick leave

Option 1: Get back in touch

If you did not maintain regular contact with an employee on long-term sickness absence, then you can ask your external department to get back in touch with the employee for you. Mensura offers a service where trained professionals will re-establish regular contact with long-term absentees on your behalf. Not only does this increase the chance of a successful return to work, it also means your organisation will save valuable time. Furthermore, these trained professionals can look at the personal, medical and psychosocial aspects behind the employee’s long-term absence.

Option 2: Start the reintegration programme

If you are unable to establish or maintain regular contact with your long-term absentee, then you still have the option to request that the employee completes the reintegration programme. Pursuant to the latest legislation, employers have the right to request from certain categories of employees on long-term sick leave that they complete a reintegration assessment with the PA-OHP.

Employers can call on Mensura’s return-to-work experts for assistance, guidance and feedback throughout the entire reintegration process. These experts can also verify for you whether or not you are entitled to any financial support, and if you are, they can arrange the necessary paperwork for you. This form of financial assistance was introduced to help cover any productivity losses due to long-term absences and to facilitate the reintegration of these employees in your workforce.

Tips for following up on employees who have returned to work

1. Direct supervisors can invite employees to talk about the circumstances and conditions of their return to work. This will help prevent future sickness absence in frequent and long-term absentees. Ideally, this meeting should take place before or on the first day of the employee’s return to work.  

2. Set future dates for follow-up meetings with the employee. If the supervisor has little or no time for this, then you can assign this task to a so-called ‘guardian’.

3. Communicate with the employee’s co-workers as well, to let them know about any changes that may be introduced in view of the return of the long-term absentee.

Make reintegration work

Mensura can help you with practical advice and a targeted approach for the successful reintegration of employees on long-term sick leave. We can help you with setting up a return-to-work policy and specific reintegration programmes, and with preventing fade-out by maintaining regular contact. Questions? Contact us at health@mensura.be.