Wednesday 21 March 2018

Return to Normal

By Roiben

Being ill and signed off work is almost par for the course for most long-term conditions. I say this as someone with more than one such condition. I have had more sick days than “average” and have been officially signed off work more than once.

As I write this I have been signed off sick from work since November 2017, with a return to work set for 5 March 2018. I have used my time off to actively work on improving my health and well-being. Specifically, my Mental Health, which is the reason for being signed off.

So, what can someone do to make being signed off sick, and the subsequent return to work, as smooth and successful as possible?

Firstly, I would recommend having a good working relationship with your HR (Human Resources) contact. Try not to see them as the enemy (as some stigma and work cultures can make them seem). Be honest with them – they cannot help you if you do not express your needs and how you are doing.

Once signed off, keep in contact with your work place and with HR. Experience says this needs to be at least weekly and ideally face to face. Going into your work place once a week keeps it familiar and allows you to keep in contact with colleagues. This is vital in my experience. It has allowed me to stay involved and abreast of what is happening in the workplace and ensured I won’t be a “stranger” when I return to work. It also means any changes that take place while you are away from the office or work place will not be a shock to the system upon your return to work.

Plan your return to work with the help of HR. In most cases, as in mine, a gradual phased return in terms of both hours and workload is best. Diving into the deep end or attempting to do all your usual tasks in fewer hours just increases the likelihood that you will end up sick again. I have had this happen, many years ago – before I knew better.

Don’t return before you are ready to. There may be pressure from family or you might feel you need to be busy or useful, but returning too soon can be detrimental. You will know when you are ready and this feeling should be combined with an obvious improvement in your well-being. It’s important that HR, as well as any medical professional that is looking after you, believes you have improved enough to consider a return to work. HR can’t and shouldn’t allow you to return without confirmation from the medical profession that you are now well enough.

A good HR team will also look at ways to assist you, not just in returning to work but in minimizing the chances of needing to be “signed off” again. They can look at reducing stress-factors and any adaptations that may be required to assist you. This may involve liaison with Occupational Health but does not always need to. It very much depends on what systems and policies your work place has.

Throughout the whole process, make sure you know what these policies are. For example, at what point will you be put on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and how much difference there is between this and your normal wage.

Know your rights and read up on what to expect so that there is no added stress in the process. ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, is a good place to start. It offers guidelines in easy to understand language on what should happen. These are guidelines, not law though. For the law, I would suggest looking at the website ( These will not just make the process less of a shock, but arm you with the knowledge of what your rights are, should anything go wrong.

Should the worse happen and you feel things are going wrong, document everything. Keep a record of communications between you and work. Make note of any agreements and decisions. Also, make sure you have a record of any medical and occupational health decisions and opinions. It is good practice to do this anyway. Should you feel you are being treated unfairly these documents can be used to state your case.

Ultimately, the process should be smooth with regular two way communications and any decisions made with your understanding and consent. If that is the case, there will be fewer issues transitioning back to work.

Once back at work, especially on a phased return, maintain regular contact with HR to let them know how you are getting on so they can be on hand should you find it too much — or not enough — at any point. Being back in the office does not make your long-term condition magically disappear, of course, and neither should your connections in HR and discussions with your manager.

I am passionate about raising awareness of disabilities, long term conditions and mental illness within the workplace. I am lucky in that the place I currently work is already on board and working to ensure conditions do not become barriers to employment. I am, however, aware that some workplaces are less on the ball and may need some work to increase their awareness of such conditions and disabilities.

My advice is to start from the outset. State your needs and requirements when you apply and build knowledge and awareness throughout your relationship with your employer. That way, if you are signed off sick there is less of a mountain to climb.

There is no doubt that more needs to be done to improve access to work for people who live with disabilities, mental illness and long term conditions. I would encourage everyone to play their own small part in achieving this, if they can.

What are your experiences, and tips for being signed off sick from work? What do you do to raise awareness and ensure your workplace “works” with you, not against you? Please share your experiences in the comments below.


About the Author

You can find Roiben on Twitter (@roiben).


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