Thames Water, which employs more than 7,500 members of staff, operates tailored, individual return-to-work plans for sick or injured employees.
The water and wastewater services provider, which operates across London, the Thames Valley and surrounding areas, has an in-house occupational health team, which receives management referrals for employees who are unwell or injured, and plans their phased return to work based on the result of a clinical assessment.
Aimee Cain, occupational health and wellbeing manager at Thames Water, explains: “We don’t have a standard return-to-work plan, it is all bespoke. Everything we offer or advise through the phased return process is purely based on the clinical assessment.
“For those with mental health issues, normally we’d come up with a set plan covering Monday to Friday, with the first week focusing on getting staff out of the house and giving them purpose again. If it was a musculoskeletal issue, the rest days are more generally beneficial to them so we ensure those are included.”
On an average month, the occupational team at Thames Water receives 100 referrals, with 30% to 40% of those from employees who are off sick, regarding their return to work. The team tries to see the employee within 10 days, and offers a report back to management within five working days of that, explaining whether the individual is fit or not for work, and what adjustments should be made. Staff are paid for up to four weeks of their phased return, which was extended to up to three months during the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.
“If someone is injured at work we respond quickly and follow up on the same day,” Cain adds. “We assess everyone on a case-by-case basis depending on the severity of illness, [and] employees’ length of service and absences, among others. We will work with both management and the employee to figure out what’s best in each situation.”
Thames Water also offers group income protection and group life cover to employees who are part of its pension scheme. It believes that it is important for staff to feel valued, and to understand that their employer cares about them and, to this end, the occupational health team wants them to make a successful return to work and not to come back sooner than they should, which can result in their eventual return being delayed even further.
“Some smaller organisations have a blanket approach to return-to-work plans, which can work, but as a larger business we need to set an example and show how a case-by-case approach works,” Cain says.
“We want to support our staff to return to work as soon as their health allows them to in order to support their recovery in a manageable, achievable and successful way.”
The organisation’s stance on what a healthy workplace is includes being a flexible employer, having managers who can competently and confidently manage health and wellbeing in the workplace regardless of what the issue is, and prioritising staff needs. Having an in-house occupational health service allows education and support for managers.
Although aiming to offer a comprehensive approach, Cain concludes that managers’ training around health and wellbeing can always be improved upon, as they have a pivotal role in ensuring employees feel supported. They, therefore, take part in workshops around this and continually review what is on offer to make sure it is working.