Read about our pioneering study with South Tees NHS Foundation Trust here.

5 ways to build your employee "Return to work" strategy

Adam Robinson
October 3, 2023

Take a second to think about how many of your friends, family and colleagues have had to take time off work to recover from surgery. Did you know that 7% of the workforce undergo surgery every year? Probably more than you thought. Add to that, Surgical recovery is the third most common cause of workplace absence across all industries.

Surgery in the employee community is common and the journey to recovery can be challenging. The role of employers in supporting that recovery is often overlooked. Execute this support well and employers may be able to boost the self-confidence of returning employees, settling the anxieties they may be experiencing about reintegrating into the workplace. Execute this poorly and returning employees may feel isolated, exposed and vulnerable. Not only that, but employees delaying their return to work, or not returning at all results in significant costs for businesses - hiring and retraining costs, remaining employee burn out and capacity limitations to name a few.

Whilst the time taken to recover from surgery is dependent on a magnitude of factors, including the type of procedure, the rate of wound healing and the nature of demands faced in the workplace, we have created a list of five pieces of advice employers can enact to help their employees return to their work faster and feeling well supported.

1. Set and align on realistic expectations

Employees may find requesting time off work for surgery to be a daunting task. The priority of any employer should be to offer their support. Ideally, employees are already aware of the company's policy but it’s important for a conversation to take place between the employer and employee weeks before the operation date to discuss the expected period of absence and develop a return-to-work (RTW) plan. 

Unlock the rest of this article

Fill out the form below to unlock the rest of this content.

An essential part of this conversation is to break down this individual’s role, highlighting the most physically and mentally demanding elements, to determine which aspects of their role, an individual may be able to resume earlier than others. 

The RTW plan should be created in collaboration between the employee requesting absence, and their manager and in consultation with the advice of the employee’s medical team. 

Developing this return-to-work plan ahead of surgery can help the employee feel secure in their position and reduce the stress associated with missing work. Incorporating work tasks as part of their recovery from surgery can help individuals retain a positive outlook as they gradually build up to being able to complete all of the tasks associated with their role. 

Ultimately, employers want to maximise the productivity of their workforce. This article from Harvard Business Review, states that In a recent survey of 150 CEOs, over 80% recognized empathy as key to success. Furthermore, empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments such as layoffs.

2. Be flexible

While it's essential to have an established return-to-work plan, surgical recovery can be unpredictable - without the correct preparation, 30% of people going through surgery will have some form of avoidable complication (Surgery Hero’s owned research). Employers should be prepared for unexpected barriers that may arise, such as wound infections or prolonged periods of pain and restricted movement. Employers should also be conscious of their employees' energy levels, as fatigue is a common symptom during recovery that can impact cognitive performance (Frontiers).

3. Encourage regular communication

Regular conversations during a period of absence can help an employee to more seamlessly reintegrate into the workplace upon their return. The employee should feel able to keep their employer up to date on their recovery progress, and the employer should provide opportunities for the employee to participate in workplace activities, such as certain meetings, as part of their recovery should they wish to. 

For many people, their occupation is an integral part of their life and retaining some involvement, in a large or small way, can offer fantastic benefits to their mental health during the recovery period. Returning to the workplace can be a daunting experience but maintaining regular communication can reduce some of the associated anxiety and fear of isolation by allowing the employee to feel up-to-date with company affairs.

4. Offer 3rd party support

Relying on 3rd party employee support services like apps, phone support, fitness programs or meditation resources employers can ensure members feel like they can speak freely, or engage on their terms. By providing such support, sentiment rates and trust improve. When it comes to surgery support, Surgery Hero utilises professional health coaches to help employees return to work faster, happier, and more well-equipped for the demands of their role.

Surgery Hero works alongside patients before and after their surgery to help them prepare better and therefore recover faster. We utilise behavioural change techniques and educational content to create personalised prehabilitation and rehabilitation programmes that are specific to a person’s surgery type. Recent Surgery Hero research has shown that our members have a shorter stay in the hospital following hip or knee replacement surgery and a lower likelihood of complication. By reducing the length of stay in the hospital, patients can start their recovery earlier, hospitals reduce their admission costs and increase the availability of beds and employers get the opportunity to enact their return to work strategy sooner.

5. Foster a supportive culture in the workplace

Creating the right culture is central to any successful organisation. If any of your team are away due to elective surgery, the whole team must recognise that the business is supportive of employees taking positive steps for their long-term health. 

This article from ‘The Economist’, states that it is becoming harder to take sick days, as there is pressure to stay involved in work from home. Creating a workplace culture that is supportive of employees during their recovery from illness or surgery will without doubt improve workplace productivity in the long term, with employees returning at the right time for them and not prolonging their recovery by returning before they are ready. Workplace cultures that are built on trust and support have higher rates of talent retention.


By supporting people facing elective surgery, and creating a best-in-class return-to-work strategy, employers can reduce both absenteeism and presenteeism, whilst increasing sentiment and reducing costs related to re-hiring and re-training. If we look at the bigger picture, supporting employee wellbeing not only creates a great workplace culture but can even contribute to a corporate social responsibility strategy by reducing the burden on the healthcare system.

At Surgery Hero, we are the pioneers of perioperative care. We help your employees prepare and recover from surgery and support our members through the physical, emotional and social challenges throughout their surgical journey and help them return to their normal, busy lives faster and with fewer setbacks.

Get in touch here to find out what we can do for your organisation.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.