Supporting employees back to work

In the Northern Ireland Civil Service, over 70% of absence days are due to staff on long-term sick (absences lasting 20 working days or more). Using behavioural insights, the Lab designed a new suite of letters to support employees when they go off sick. The letters reject traditional formal approaches of absence management in favour of empathy, clarity, and empowerment. Both line managers and staff feel the letters are a huge help in providing the support they need when off sick.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

How can organisations support employees to return to work after illness or injury?

In the Northern Ireland Civil Service, over 70% of absence days are due to staff on long-term sick (absences lasting 20 working days or more). In addition, over 40% of those long-terms absences are due to Mental Health Illnesses. If each person on long-term sick came back to work only 4.3 working days sooner, the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab worked out that they could reduce the overall average working days lost by 5%, generating a paybill savings of £1.6m. The Innovation Lab worked with Human Resources (HR) to redesign the letters sent to staff off sick in order to better support them and to remove any bureaucratic barriers to a timely return-to-work.

Traditionally, the language used in HR letters is often frightening, anxiety-provoking, and not empathetic to the person recovering from illness. There is a focus on ‘policy triggers’, dismissal, and legal language designed to intimidate and scare the employee back to work. The Innovation Lab heard stories from HR staff that on several occasions they have had to spend the first 20 minutes of a conversation calming down the member of staff, reassuring them they were not going to lose their job, and trying to explain the letter in a more empathetic way. We also heard stories from employees who received the letters while off sick about the impact the letters had on their mental health. The employee may have spent days worrying about the letter before they are even able to speak to HR, thus delaying even further a prospect of a timely return to work. There was an urgent need to revise the HR letters, and the Innovation Lab thought a behavioural science perspective could bring fresh and innovative thinking to their approach.

For each letter reviewed, organisers asked a few questions to start:
• Is this letter necessary? Is it the best form of communication?
• If so, what do they want people to do when the get this letter?
• How can the Innovation Lab make it as easy and clear for people to do what it is they want them to do?
• What do they want or need them to know? What is vital to know and what can they remove to an information sheet at the back of the letter?
• How will the member of staff feel when they receive the letter? Can they incorporate the empathetic language you use in a face-to-face meeting into the letter?

To design the letters, they used the Behavioural Insights Team’s EAST and MINDSPACE frameworks, a recent trial of an intervention designed to increase employee return to work, and CIPD guidance on the role of line management in the return to work.

Our main guiding value was compassion and empathy for the staff member off work. A return to work can be daunting for staff who have been off sick for a period of time. It’s vital to foster positive relationships, both to encourage a return to work, but also to create a safe, productive work environment.
The letters also focused on the following principles:
• Simplifying the content and messages
• Personalisation – removing references to case number in the “To” field and replacing the surname with first name
• Minimizing ‘legal speak’ and using plain language
• Framing all content in terms of “return to work” and “recovery” rather than “inefficiency” and “sickness”
• Making the design attractive and professional
• Adding structure with the use of headings, colour coordination, bullet points, chunking, and white space
• Consider the messenger: for each letter, we considered who was signing off the letter and what impact that may have. Where possible the messenger was a person, not just “HR”
• Removing potentially anxiety-provoking but important information from the main body of the letter, carefully making the wording as empathetic as possible, and incorporating the information into a separate “Information Sheet”.

The letters also emphasized themes of:
• Recovery, recovery plans and encouraging visualizing the steps needed to return to work
• Accountability of employee – clear emphasis on the steps, if any, that the employee needed to take to be sure they were complying with the policy
• Line manager as primary support mechanism
• Effective signposting of support services – putting all forms of support, including the option of phased-return, in a separate leaflet that could be attached to any letter. We removed hyperlinks to webpages (because all letters are printed and posted) and included phone numbers or email addresses to the services
• Encouraging staff member to seek social support on day one of return to work

The Lab also considered the impact of anchors and avoided the use of language that would anchor a member of staff in the identity of “someone on long-term sick.”

The letters were rolled out in June 2019 to one Department and, because of excellent feedback, will be expanded to all 9 Departments by the end of 2019. The Lab will be analysing sickness absence data to look at impact on return to work data in 2020.

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Year: 2019
Level of government: National/Federal government


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