Purpose The success of measures to reduce long-term sickness absence (LTSA) in public sector organisations is contingent on organisational context. This realist evaluation investigates how interventions interact with context to influence successful management of LTSA. Methods Multi-method case study in three Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland comprising realist literature review, semi-structured interviews (61 participants), Process-Mapping and feedback meetings (59 participants), observation of training, analysis of documents. Results Important activities included early intervention; workplace-based occupational rehabilitation; robust sickness absence policies with clear trigger points for action. Used appropriately, in a context of good interpersonal and interdepartmental communication and shared goals, these are able to increase the motivation of staff to return to work. Line managers are encouraged to take a proactive approach when senior managers provide support and accountability. Hindering factors: delayed intervention; inconsistent implementation of policy and procedure; lack of resources; organisational complexity; stakeholders misunderstanding each other’s goals and motives. Conclusions Different mechanisms have the potential to encourage common motivations for earlier return from LTSA, such as employees feeling that they have the support of their line manager to return to work and having the confidence to do so. Line managers’ proactively engage when they have confidence in the support of seniors and in their own ability to address LTSA. Fostering these motivations calls for a thoughtful, diagnostic process, taking into account the contextual factors (and whether they can be modified) and considering how a given intervention can be used to trigger the appropriate mechanisms.