Return to work

Return to work interview: 5 strategies to improve your empathy skills

Continuing our focus on the return to work interview, this blog will look at the topic of empathy, how it is different to sympathy and why it is so important in the workplace.

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Empathy and sympathy intertwine constantly in our day-to-day lives, yet they each have a very different outcome. The dictionary definition of empathy is‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Sympathy is defined as‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune’. Sympathy tends to be the default emotional reaction, to show you are sorry for how somebody is feeling. Empathy requires more thought and a deeper understanding of exactly what the other person has gone through. It puts you in their shoes and shows that you have ‘heard’ them and that you are supportive of them. 

Health and wellbeing professionals often use empathy as a tool to open up difficult or sensitive conversations. It empowers the person as they realise you are ‘walking alongside’ them, not just pitying them. An employee returning to work after a period of long-term sickness absence will need a positive and constructive return to work interview.  If, as a manager, you can use empathy to show that you understand what they have been through and that you understand their concerns about returning to work, you will have a more positive outcome in supporting and integrating that employee back into the workplace.

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Referring your employee to an Occupational Health provider will have been the first step to getting an understanding of how the employee’s health will affect them back at work. Following that, and in preparation for the return to work interview, here are our 5 tips to improve your empathy skills:

  1. Do your homework. As with all return to work interviews preparation is paramount. This will demonstrate you are fully focussed on supporting the employee. Use your occupational health report, familiarise yourself with the history of the sickness absence and recommendations. What is the long-term impact for the employee? Do you understand fully the implications of any adjustments required? Is there a plan in place to get the adjustments implemented? Have you researched all the guidance that has been suggested by your occupational health report?

    Does the employee’s case qualify for Access To Work support?

  2. Walk in their shoes. Showing empathy means taking someone’s feelings into consideration and understanding their journey, even if you disagree with the route / treatment / approach they have taken. Before the interview, put yourself in their shoes and think about what changes/challenges they are facing. Imagine how it must be for them. 

  3. Practise makes perfect. Be aware through your day-to-day life, of how you use empathy and sympathy and notice the different responses to each.

    Here are some examples of empathy: 

    It is hard, you must be worried / exhausted / frustrated.

    Sometimes these things don’t really make sense.

    I can hear in your voice that _________ has been really difficult for you.

    I would be asking the same questions if I were in your situation.

    This kind of thing is never easy.

    I am on your side / I will be with you through this.

    That must be infuriating / so frustrating for you.

  4. Listen carefully. Find a private, quiet space without any distractions. If it’s more comfortable this could be away from the office. Put phones and laptops away. Listen with your whole body: be still, smile and nod reassuringly, maintain eye contact and be aware of your hand movements and gestures. Keep the range of your movements to a minimum so the full focus of your attention is on them. Ask open questions and listen carefully to their responses, use the 2 ears – 1 mouth rule: repeat back key information and use empathy in your responses. 

  5. Take notes. Make sure the employee is happy for you to take notes at the beginning of the meeting and offer to send them a copy. Write down what needs actioning, reviewing or researching and follow-up the action points taking any worries or concerns into consideration. 

    Do you have any other advice or tips to share? How have you used your empathy skills to support and welcome an employee back after a period of long-term sickness absence?

Managing the return to work interview after an employee’s mental health illness.

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Following on in our series about the return to work interview, we focus this week on strategies to manage the process, following the absence of an employee with mental health illness. 

In many ways, this can be more of a challenge to management and HR than any other return to work interview. The improved attitude to mental health care over the last few years has certainly helped bring these issues to the table, yet there is still work to be done to reduce the stigma about mental health and keep up the communication at all levels. Source. This can create a challenging in encouraging an employee open up about what help they need and should be handled with sensitivity and care. 

The aim of the return to work interview in this instance is to create an honest and open dialogue that will lead to a system of support and understanding between employers and employees. The first step is often the hardest, but by reaching out to the employee on a regular basis during their time off, it should be a natural progression to discuss how the business might facilitate a return to work that ‘works’ for them. 

When they are ready, you might hold the return to work interview in an informal yet private location or they may be happy to come into the workplace. 

The first thing to discuss is confidentiality, this is one of the biggest concerns employees have about disclosure during and after a mental health illness. How it is handled is entirely at the discretion of the employee, they may like colleagues to be informed on their behalf, they might prefer totally confidentiality or be happy to share the story themselves. There is no right or wrong and the WRAP is the perfect tool to assess this…. 

This brings us neatly on to what is arguably the most important tool in a managers’ return to work kit, the WRAP ‘Wellness, Recovery, Action Plan’. This positive collaborative management tool is an informal contract between the employee and employer that details the support the employee needs to enable them to recover and stay in work and what the employer will do to facilitate that. 

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No two experiences of mental health illness are the same and the WRAP enables a person centred approach. This not only opens up the conversation but also gives the person control over their recovery and helps them feel confident that they will receive the support they need.  It might include questions such as ‘Can you describe any of your triggers for mental ill health and early warning signs that we might notice’, or ‘If your health deteriorates, or we feel we have noticed early warning signs of distress, what should we do? Who can we contact?’.

There might be points on the WRAP that a manager will consequently need to monitor, such as that the person isn’t working too many long hours, that they are taking their lunch break or supporting with a flexible approach to hours and workload. This will be an evolving process and used as a basis for ongoing discussion, the WRAP can be continually amended as the employee settles back into work and wellbeing. 

There is a good template on page 25 of the guide: ‘Managing and supporting mental health at work: disclosure tools for managers’ on the cipd website.

The final important point that a line manager handling a return to work interview should be aware of, is their ‘frame of reference’. This is the unique set of values and judgements that we all hold that affect the way we see the world and the people in it.  It affects every decision we make. For a return to work interview, a manager should leave their own ‘frame of reference’ at the door and try and see the situation from the employees perspective. This will enable them to truly listen and respond to the needs of the person in the room, without any preconceived outcome or solution in mind. 

For further information https://mhfaengland.org or https://www.mind.org.uk

Do you use WRAP in your workplace?  How have you found it as a management tool in terms of your employees’ responsiveness to it, after a period of absence with mental ill health? 

10 tips for managing the return to work interview after an employee has been off with stress.

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According to the Health and Safety Executive, in 2016, 37% of all cases of work-related ill health were due to stress (and related issues of anxiety or depression). Each case resulted in an average 24 working days lost, the implication of which can have a huge effect on any business, large or small. 

High staff turnover is expensive, so it makes business sense to reduce the chances of employees leaving as a result of work-related stress.  The key to preventing an employee leaving is often good communication and understanding their issues and frustration. 

Our last blog discussed the importance of considering issues from different perspectives and this can really help in these situations.  A return to work interview handled with particular care and thought is essential if you want to retain such employees.   

Here are our top ten tips at Cordell Health for managing the return to work interview with an employee who has been off with stress. 

1. Consider the interview an opportunity to ensure the employee’s issues are fully explored.

2. Be open and supportive; make the conversation as informal as possible. 

3. Be objective and leave your own feelings and opinions outside the room. Listen carefully and show an interest in what they have to say, even if you feel that the employee is being unfair. 

4. Try to fully understand the cause of their stress from their perspective, so you can work with them to reduce possible triggers and barriers to returning to work where possible. 

5. Using the HSE management standards for work-related stress as a framework for discussion is useful:

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  • Demands – this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation

The HSE has published a detailed questionnaire that has some really good return to work discussion points, ideal for a period of absence with stress. 

6. Discuss any medical advice given by a GP or occupational health professional and be honest about the changes that can be made by the business and the reasons for the recommendations that can’t be accommodated.  

7. It is important not to create unrealistic expectations or to fail to deliver on promises that might further increase the employees’ stress.

8. Use the interview to reinforce the employees’ importance to the business and let them know all about what has been going on in their absence. 

9. Agree how their progress back at work will be monitored, and set achievable goals that consider areas such as workload, regular breaks and impact on work-life balance.

10. Follow up the meeting with regular communication; frequent informal chats work well and may lead your employee to feel more likely to open up and share areas of concern or problems that arise. 

For more advice on supporting an employee with stress Fit For Work and the HSE have some really good strategies and tips. 

Have you had to manage an employee’s return to work interview after a period of absence with stress? Were there any strategies you used to help them feel at ease and support them in the road to recovery and keep them in employment?

Return to work perspectives

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It is good practice for organisations to conduct a return to work interview following a period of long-term sickness absence. Keeping the interview objective, based on facts and not influenced by personal feelings or opinions is easily achievable with the right planning and preparation. 

Be organised, brainstorm from each perspective of the parties involved as detailed below, before you conduct the return to work interview. This will then provide you with a solid framework for discussion that is going to ensure you remain focused and fair. Using your judgement of the facts relevant to each of the 3 perspectives is going to eliminate emotion and keep you on track to staying objective. 

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Schedule a face to face informal return to work interview once you know when the employee will be back at work. Communication is vital for success, plan for reviews during the initial return period and these will vary depending upon whether a phased return is in place. Explain and discuss any changes to their work role or responsibilities. Where appropriate set and agree new objectives for the future, short-term and longer-term, use these as the basis in your agreed return to work review plan. This approach will enable you to support the individual and facilitate discussion should any further changes need to be made.

Prepare yourself for the interview thinking about each of the following different perspectives: your own, the employee and the 3rd person.

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  • Your perspective: be positive, supportive and welcoming. You don’t need to become a medic and fully understand the individual’s illness, it is more important to be a good manager. Be sensitive, understanding and aware of the situation. Support any recommended adjustments that you consider reasonable and ensure they are in place prior to the employee’s return to work where practicable (or at least ensure they are in hand). Make sure you comply with the Equality Act 2010  Duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments for their staff. Eliminate any emotion and focus on facts to help inform your decision-making, remember happy staff are proven to be more productive!
  • The employee’s perspective: they will benefit from a sense of normality. It is important for their rehabilitation to regain financial independence, this will impact and improve their self-esteem and self-respect. The benefits to them of getting back in the workplace will have a positive impact on their health. Helping to keep their first few weeks back at work as low stress as possible is key. In your preparation think about how to avoid triggers for stress.
  • The 3rd perspective: think about how the individual’s return to work will affect the rest of your team, other employees in the business/organisation or possibly external clients/customers. If appropriate, how will you communicate any changes to make the return to work as seamless as possible for the individual and the 3rd parties involved? Thinking and planning around the bigger picture is going to help set the scene for how the individual can integrate back into their role successfully.

At the end of the day, everyone’s goal is to get back to business as usual or to create a new positive ‘usual’ – for all involved that you can move forward with. 

Have you used any other techniques to help stay objective in a return to work interview?