Return to work after long-term absence: 3 practical tips

During the Belgian National Days of Occupational Medicine, Katelijne Roland, occupational health physician at Mensura, advocated a multidisciplinary approach for the reintegration of employees on long-term absence. One week later, the long-awaited Royal Decree on the reintegration of employees on long-term absence due to illness came into effect, offering the perfect opportunity for Katelijne to share her experience in the field.

Ensuring sustained employability among workers depends on two key elements: a stay-at-work policy that proactively addresses recurrent issues, and a return-to-work framework to prevent these issues in the first place. It sounds logical, but in reality there are many stumbling blocks yet to overcome.

1. Facilitate the gradual return to work of employees on long-term absence

One typical example is burnout. Employers are usually very keen to see their employees back in their fulltime position as soon as possible. However, by facilitating a more gradual return to work, you will help avoid a relapse.

Proper communication between the employer, the health insurance fund, the treating physician and the occupational health physician is therefore essential. One reason for this is the fact that the occupational health physician has a much better understanding of the employee’s work environment, which makes it much easier to discuss the option of restricted work duties with the employer. But even after the employee has returned to work, it is crucial to maintain proper communication: regular assessments by the prevention advisor are definitely recommended as this will allow changes to be made where needed.

2. Focus on possibilities, not on limitations

It is important to remain focusedon the possibilitiesthroughout every stage of the reintegration process. Don’t focus on limitations. By using a so-called job matching tool, employers can look at the physical and mental requirements of a particular job position and compare these against the capabilities of the employee who is on long-term absence. This will easily reveal what the employee is still capable of, as opposed to the things he or she is no longer able to do for the time being.

3. Establish a transparent policy on absenteeism

Restricted work duties – from ergonomic changes to the employee’s workstation to a gradually increased work pace – are often objected against. The employer may be afraid of setting a precedent, and colleagues may openly voice their disapproval. You can avoid this by establishing a transparent policy on absenteeism.

It is important for the company to list all the steps required to translate these temporary restrictions into a work situation that is fully aligned with the capabilities of the employee who has been absent for an extended period of time. And by ensuring proper communication with co-workers, they will be prepared for the situation and realise that no preferential treatment is given and that the same policy applies to anyone else in that situation.

Need practical help with job matching or with drawing up a policy on absenteeism? Contact us.

Read also: Case study: "Reintegrating employees on long-term absence due to illness: What has changed?"