Gradually Returning Your Employee to Work

Shawnee Love   •  
February 19, 2015

Chances are, you will at some point in your management career have an employee go on leave for medical reasons.  Hopefully, your employee will make a full recovery and you will come to the point when s/he is ready to come back to work.  If you have been in touch with your employee throughout the leave, you will likely be aware of his or her timing for returning to work and that is great because it gives you time to plan.

Here are a few tips to make the return to work process go smoothly:

  1. Whether you have stayed in contact (please do) or not during the employee’s leave, when you know the individual wants to come back, get the employee to provide you with a fitness for work statement.  I like to provide the form to my employee on leave and ask him/her to get the doctor to complete and return it at least a couple of weeks prior to the planned return to work date.  This statement from the doctor will provide you with great information on what the person can and can’t do which is necessary to determining:
  • Whether you can even bring the person back,
  • What schedule to bring the person back on,
  • What duties or activities to have the person do,
  • What tools or equipment the person can use, and even
  • Who to have the returning employee work alongside.
  • It will also help ensure you don’t return the person to work too soon and potentially cause a relapse or worse damage.

Often that statement confirming eligibility to return to work will come with a caveat. Perhaps your employee can’t lift or stand too long or is only able to work part time at first.  Consider what if any accommodations you can make and then arrange to meet with your employee to finalize the plan.

The return to work plan should enable the employee to return to work in a fashion that meets:

  • The doctor’s requirements,
  • The Company’s and your team’s needs,
  • The employee’s sense of what s/he will be able to do.

If for example, the doctor says half time for a few weeks, here are 4 (of many possible) examples of how half time could be created:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Example 1 .5 day off 1 day off 1 day
Example 2 .5 day .5 day .5 day .5 day .5 day
Example 3 .25 day .25 day .5 day .75 day .75 day
Example 4 off .25 day .5 day .75 day 1 day


  1. In those return to work statements, you will also often see instructions like:
  • “Must take frequent breaks”,
  • “Must not stand for too long”, and
  • “May not lift heavy items”.

When you see those types of vague recommendations, do not be afraid to call the doctor who filled out the form and ask for more information about what exactly the doctor means because heavy, frequent and too long mean different things to different people.

3. Document the return to work plan you and your employee agree upon and keep a copy in the file along with the return to work doctor’s statement.  This will become your bible and also a template for the types of steps you need to take in future similar situations.

4. Once the return to work plan is firmed up, advise the team of the upcoming returning employee and the plan for the return. You will set the returning employee up for success if you ensure there are no surprises for rest of the team.  Remember, to keep the medical information confidential though.  You only need to talk about the return to work plan.

5. Once the employee comes back to work, meet after the first week to see how the return to work is going.  Don’t just assume the plan will work.  Make sure it does by connecting with the employee and even team members to see if there are any unforeseen issues that have arisen and figure out how to solve them.

As Benjamin Franklin said “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.