“Help! My employee refuses to return to work! What can I do?”

Moira Grassick

October 07 2021

Last updated: October 7th, 2021

Employees have recently begun to return to the office on a phased and staggered basis for specific business requirements. While this marks another positive step forward for society as a whole, many employers are having to deal with a difficult issue: their employees refusing to return to work. 

Before going down any disciplinary route, it’s important to note that the Government has advised that employees should continue to work from home where possible. This advice is included in the updated Work Safely Protocol.

Still, what rights do you have if an employee refuses to return to work? Can employees be disciplined for staying at home? And how can they be encouraged to return to work?

Let’s find out…

What can the employer do?

If an employee refuses to return to work without reason, it could be deemed an unauthorised absence. Unauthorised absence is a little more blurred in the current circumstances though, as an employee may be genuinely worried about returning to the office. 

When dealing with an unauthorised absence, it’s best to inform the employee that they’re required to return to work and forewarn them that if they fail to attend work, it may lead to formal disciplinary action. If the employee continues to refuse to return or fails to engage, it may lead to dismissal with notice. Here, however, you must remember that any employee with at least 12 months’ service prior to being dismissed will have the option of bringing an Unfair Dismissal claim before the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

If the employee in question is able to carry out their work from home, it may be best to consider making the arrangement permanent. Or at least extending it for a period. This is a safer bet, especially if the employee has remained productive while working remotely. Before making such a decision, consult with the employee about their circumstances. They might need extra time to get childcare arranged, or they might be looking after an elderly person.

You can also turn to your employment contracts in this situation. Employees have a duty to perform their job and there may even be implied terms (unwritten) that you can rely on.

Another thing you can do is encourage your absent employee to return to work. Let’s look at how you can do that…

Involve employees in your health and safety assessment

All businesses, in all sectors, must adhere to the Work Safely Protocol when welcoming employees back to the workplace.

One effective assessment you can undertake to show your employees that you’re doing your best to protect everyone’s health is to conduct a risk assessment. Be mindful to include coronavirus risks and hazards. Assess how the virus might spread and establish processes for eliminating or controlling the risk.

When conducting your risk assessment, involve staff in the process. Ask them if there are any specific safety steps they’d like you to take. For instance, some employees might feel safer working staggered shifts to avoid cramming onto public transport at rush hour. Staggered breaks would also free up communal spaces.

Involving employees in your risk assessments helps show them that you’re taking their concerns seriously. Not only that, it gives them more control over the environment they work in.  

Share your safety measures with staff 

Conducting a risk assessment is a great start. Now it’s time to share it with staff.

You can do this by sharing a paper copy of the assessment for those who are present in the workplace. For those who are working from home, you could send a short video of the workplace and a digital copy of the risk assessment. Doing so reassures them that the workplace is safe. 

Employee mental wellbeing support

Employee mental wellbeing cannot be ignored at any point. And yet, as employees begin to return to work, it may be more important than ever.

To help your employees feel better about returning to work, and their mental health in general, you may consider offering an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

An EAP gives your employees access to 24/7 telephone advice, face-to-face counselling, and online tools to help them stay happy and healthy.

Need our help?

For advice on handling employees who refuse to return to work or guidance on adhering to the updated Work Safely Protocol, speak to an expert now on 0818 923 923.

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