Return to Work

  • Leave and Absence
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

Learn how to support returning employees after an absence and what steps are needed to make the process as easy as possible.

Sometimes, an employee might need to take a long absence from work.

When they’re able to come back, employers need to manage their return to work. This involves all kinds of steps that you must follow correctly.

If you don't, you could end up facing huge consequences. Like losing employees, business losses, and damage to your brand reputation

In this guide, we'll look at what return to work is, when it's used, and how to support an employee's return.

What is return to work?

Return to work is when an employee comes back to the workplace after a long-term absence.

Their employer needs to make sure the person is able to work again. This means following the right process, from their leave to their return and beyond.

Some employees might be on long-term sick leave because of a physical or mental health illness. But soon, they might be ready to start working again. And when they do, you’ll need to manage their return correctly.

Following the right return to work procedure will help them settle better. This leads to a faster turnaround of work duties and tasks.

What are reasons for a long-term absence?

From maternity leave to sabbaticals, there are many reasons for long absence. For example, an employee may return to work from:

A long-term absence period can bring all kinds of issues - for the employer and their workplace. That's why it's important to stay on top of all long-term absences.

What is the law on returning to work?

In the UK, there is no specific law that covers returning to work. But there is relevant legislation and best practice you need to follow during this time.

Let’s explore these below.

The Equality Act 2010

Sometimes, an employee is off sick for a long time due to an ongoing illness.

Under the Equality Act 2010, an ongoing condition may class as a disability if:

  • It has a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on a person's daily life.
  • Lasts for at least 12 months (or is expected to).
  • Has an influence on a person's ability to do normal activities.

The Equality Act also states anyone with a disability should receive reasonable adjustments. This is a legal requirement for anyone with a disability – physical or mental. These changes remove the barriers caused by their disability in the job.

When they return to work, they could be able to carry on with their normal duties. Employers must not ignore the importance of reasonable adjustments. If you do, you could end up facing a disability discrimination claim.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Employers have a legal duty to protect employee health, safety, and wellbeing. This comes under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA).

Under this law, you need to make sure your workplace is safe - especially for returning employees. A great way to do this is through a return-to-work risk assessment.

Risk assessments help you spot issues that could affect the employee's health and job capability. They're also useful when trying to plan out their new 'normal' working routine.

The Statutory Sick Pay (General) Regulations 1982; and The Statutory Sick Pay (Medical Evidence) Regulations 1985

If an employee is on a sick leave period for seven days or less, they don't have to offer a fit note.

Here, they're allowed to provide a self-certificate. This is a statement that outlines their sickness, and other details surrounding their absence.

If their sickness absence is longer than seven days, they'll need to provide a sick note. Only a medical professional can provide these like a GP, nurse, or therapist. During this time, employees may be entitled to sick pay (SSP) support.

The Employment Rights Act 1996

Depending on the case, an employer can dismiss someone based on their capability.

When your reasons relate to ill-health, it's called a medical capability dismissal. Employers need to investigate the reasons behind their absence period; and whether they’re still fit enough to work. From here, you must follow a fair and legal dismissal process.

You can dismiss an employee has a disability or a long-term health condition. But you need to prove they couldn't meet their employment terms.

Throughout this entire period, the employee must be treated fairly - you cannot unfairly dismiss them. If they face an unfair dismissal, it could be raised to employment tribunals.

If the claim is upheld, you could end up with a range of legal penalties. For example, paying fines and reimbursing legal fees (in certain cases).

How to help employees return to work

There are several things to consider before an employee returns to the workplace.

As an employer, it's important to make sure they're able to work. Here are things to consider before employees return to work:

Send news updates

Communication is an essential part of an employee's long-term absence from work. If needed, you should keep them updated about what's going on at work.

You don't need to contact them every day. But you should let them know about any work changes that relate to them. From workplace reshuffles to safety news, regular catch ups can help keep them in the loop.

Ask for a fit note

Sometimes, an employee might be sickness absence is for more than seven days in a row. Here, you need to ask them for a fit note.

A fit note is a medical report that outlines whether they’re well enough to work. This is professional advice from a GP, nurse, or physiotherapist.

The notes can also mention whether reasonable adjustments are needed after the employee’s return.

Sometimes, medical professionals may say the employee is 'not fit for work'. Even if the employee is adamant on working, you shouldn't allow them. Only let them return once their fit note states they’re well enough to work.

Refer them to welfare meeting

Employers can also refer employees to a welfare meeting, through occupational health (OH). An occupational health specialist will monitor the employee’s return, especially after long-term sick leave.

An occupational health assessment may be used to see if the employee has well. They can also suggest support adjustments that’ll help with specific work issues.

Update your sickness absence policy

It's important to make sure you have a sickness absence policy in place.

Employers should update their sickness absence policy, so it covers:

  • How to report an absence (for a short and long period).
  • When sick or fit notes are needed.
  • When return to work procedures are supposed to start.
  • What employee rights still apply during an absence. (Like accrued holidays, sick leave, and sick pay).

Managing the rules on sickness leave can improve attendance, decrease further absences, and encourage a healthy early return.

Other absence policies may cover the rules on leave for dependants, travel disruptions, and unauthorised absence.

How to manage an employee’s return to work

Employers must know how to support employees are able to come back to work.

If you do it right, they'll feel valued and respected. This will motivate them to work harder and grow business success with you.

Let's look at ways to manage a return-to-work procedure:

Hold return to work meetings

The best way to see if an employee is able to work again is by speaking to them. The employer can hold a return to work interview.

During return-to-work meetings, you should discuss:

  • If they're ready to return to work.
  • Any work-related news they should know.
  • Any medical recommendations that should be mentioned.
  • Whether they'll need additional support (like work adjustments and health referrals).
  • If you have an employee assistance programme (EAP) in place.

After you discuss each point, the employee should sign a return to work form. This is written proof of the meeting and all information shared.

Offer reasonable adjustments

Under the Equality Act 2010, making reasonable adjustments is your legal duty. This specifically goes to employees with disabilities. That includes both a physical and mental long-term illness.

Employers can get advice on adjustments from medical professionals. For example, an employee's:

  • GP or nurse.
  • Occupational health specialist.

Medical professionals will be able to develop or recommend adjustments that will help with the employee's return to work. Workplace adjustments range from reduced hours to re-training. In the end, you'll need to decide whether to minimise responsibilities or offer lighter duties.

You can also use risk assessments to figure out what workplace adjustments will help their return. Or develop ones suggested by the medical health professional.

Provide a phased return to work

Sometimes, an employee may have taken long-term sick leave. Here, it might be hard to expect them to settle without facing difficulties.

Employers can offer a phased return to work instead. This will help the employee's transition go at a good pace.

A medical professional may state whether an employee should have a phased return to work. From here, you should create a phased return to work plan that covers:

  • How long the phased return to work will last.
  • What workplace adjustments are needed during the phased return.
  • How often health and wellbeing reviews will be held.
  • If new adjustments will be made after their phased return.

What if an employee struggles after they return to work?

Not all employees will be able to easily settle back into the workplace. Some might find the transition hard to grasp or struggle to keep up.

This is especially common for employees who have been on long-term sick leave due to a disability

If an employee is struggling after they return to work, you need to figure out the cause. You can do this by using strategies like:

  • Welfare management.
  • Mentoring (short or long-term).
  • Re-training.
  • Medical referrals.

If an employee is struggling to work because of a disability, you need to consider reasonable adjustments. Not only is this their legal right, it's also a moral one. Don't let their health condition stop them from succeeding at work.

If an employee is adamant on not returning, you may need to go through a medical capability dismissal process. But this should only be considered as a last resort.

Get expert advice on return to work with Peninsula

Employees can take short or long-term leave for all sorts of situations. Maybe they've suddenly got sick; or have new parental duties to attend to.

When the time is right, it falls on the employer to support their return to work. From amending working hours to offering reasonable adjustments; you can help return safely.

If you don't handle their return properly, you could end up losing employees. Not to mention, paying compensation or facing work losses.

Peninsula offers expert advice on helping employees return to work. Our HR team offers unlimited 24/7 HR employment services which are available 365 days a year.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 028 2420 and book a free consultation with an HR consultant today.

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