In association with

Supporting a return to work after illness or injury

Sometimes employees need to take time off. Perhaps to recover from illness or injury, or to deal with a range of life situations. Here’s how you can support them during that time.

When employees need time away

There are many reasons employees may need time away from work, or may need to change their working conditions.

They might need to recover from a physical or mental illness, an injury, or care for someone else. Or they may need to deal with a situation that means for a time they can’t work the way they had been, eg domestic violence, bereavement, relationship breakup.

Employees need your understanding and support during their recovery and transition back to work.

It’s good for everyone if employees come back to work as soon as they are safely able. You get a valued employee back on deck. This can save on recruitment, retraining and extra wages you are paying for cover.

Your employee once again feels connected, productive and valued. This means they are less likely to feel financially stressed. This also helps their mental wellbeing.

How to support staff staying at work

Quite often your employee might be able to work through their recovery, so long as they and their health professionals agree. Working throughout recovery can be good for mental wellbeing, as people feel connected and like they’re still making a useful contribution.

Think about how you can be flexible. What might you change to keep them working?

With their agreement, these changes might include:

  • swapping some tasks for others they are more able to do
  • adjusting work schedules so they can work when they feel most well
  • reducing work hours, if possible, then building up as their health improves
  • allowing time off to go to medical appointments or counselling
  • adjusting the physical work environment, eg maybe so they can sit, or altering noise or light levels for their comfort
  • flexible sick leave, and leave without pay provisions in employment agreements.

Once you’ve talked through an arrangement with your employee, put the agreed points in writing. That way you make sure you’ve both got the same understanding. It also allows you to refer back and change as their recovery progresses.

Ways to help staff returning to work

If your employee must take time off work, a successful return to work often comes down to good communication. This must start as soon as you know they need time off work, or need you to offer some flexibility.


Agree how much time they need off work, and what they might need from you during that time. If appropriate, ask if there’s anything you could do to help them keep working. Ask if they have other support networks, such as family and friends, who can help them while they are away from work.

Part of good communication is also being upfront about what you need as an employer. But never assume you know what your employee is capable of. Ask them about their needs and abilities. Focus on what they say they can do, rather than what you think they can’t.

Open Minds(external link) — Mental Health Foundation

Keep in contact with your employee throughout their time off. But don’t over communicate to the point your employee feels hassled or pressured into returning to work before they’re fit. You might give them an update on how work is going or check in about their recovery. Choose your style of communicating to suit their needs, whether it’s in person, over the phone, or by email.

Agree on a plan

Commit to doing specific things during their time off or recovery. That might be as simple as reassuring your employee about their sick leave, and that they won’t lose their job.

Also talk about how you could be flexible to support them back to work, like changing their hours or reducing their workload. Write this plan down, so you remember what’s agreed.

Be consistent

Do your best to offer all employees the same accommodations, no matter what role they have in the business or what their situation is. This includes whether:

  • the time off is to deal with their own issue
  • the time away is to care for a family member
  • the issue is work or non-work related.

You must treat any issues with mental health the same way you would physical health.

Monitor and review

Regularly check in with your employee to make sure the plan is still working for both of you.

Maybe they are recovering well and would like to come back to work earlier, or maybe you’d like to propose a change.

Just remember that while you can terminate employment for medical incapacity, there is a proper process to follow, and you must allow sick leave.

Medical incapacity(external link) — Employment New Zealand

Create a stay at work/return to work policy

Deciding in advance how you will support employees who must take time off work, or need some flexibility to deal with illness, injury, or a life situation, is highly recommended.

Include a stay at work/return to work policy in a Health and Wellbeing policy customised for your workplace.

Stay at work/return to work(external link) — Workplace Policy Builder

Rating form

How helpful did you find this?

Rate this

"Rate this" is required