What is a phased return to work?

A phased return to work is when an employee gradually returns to work after a prolonged period of absence.

A phased return to work, when managed correctly, can reduce the risk of further sick leave, return your employee to full capacity and productivity sooner and protect your employee’s wellbeing, health and safety.

Return to work plans

It is important that return-to-work plans clearly map out the gradual process of your employee getting back to working at full capacity, which in addition to reduced hours, may also include the implementation of restricted duties for a period of time to assist with managing risks.

Phased return to work example

The phasing arrangements will depend on the employee’s circumstances and what can reasonably be incorporated into their work schedule and the needs of your organisation. Some things to consider are:

  • Start and finish times which may allow travel at less busy times.
  • Duration of the phased return – there is no set timeframe for a phased return, although they typically last between 4 and 6 weeks but may be extended or reduced as required.
  • Working pattern – medical evidence may suggest shorter days such as mornings only, gradually building the duration each day, or full days, but only two or three per week, building to a full week.
  • Temporarily adding more frequent or longer rest breaks beyond the minimum amount required.
  • Lighter duties – for example, restricting some physical elements of the work.
  • Alternative duties – for example, tiredness or stress may impact an employee’s ability to undertake a high-pressure customer-facing role, so they could work in a quieter, back-office role while they become re-accustomed to the working environment.

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Long-term sickness absence

Expecting an employee to return to full-time hours following a period of long-term sickness absence or after bereavement, for example, could be counterproductive. It may lead to health deterioration and undo the recovery which that person has made during their absence or have a detrimental impact on their well-being, which could risk your employee being out of the business for longer or deciding to leave permanently.

If the employer does not agree to a reasonable return to work, there may be risks. If you have not made a reasonable adjustment for an employee who is considered to have a disability, then you could be in breach of the Equality Act 2010. Also, if the employment contract was terminated based on ill health without following due process, the employee may have been unfairly dismissed leaving the employer at risk of a claim for unfair dismissal at a tribunal.

If you have an absence management policy, you should ensure that you follow your procedure.

Before the employee returns to work, the employer and employee should have an initial discussion to establish what the requirements and restrictions may be and any important work updates that may have been missed during the absence. Returning to work can be a daunting prospect. Therefore, you should do your best to put your employee’s mind at ease by being well-organised.

You should obtain advice from a GP or Occupational Health Provider. You can request that your employee obtains a fit note from their GP ahead of a return to work to ensure that a medical professional is satisfied that they are able to return to work.

On a fit note, there is the option for GPs to advise suitable adjustments, and they may give their opinion as to how this should be implemented. You can prompt your employee to ask their GP for recommendations or alternatively make a referral to an occupational health expert.

If your employee is now considered to have a long-term condition, it’s a good idea to revisit your organisation’s risk assessment to establish if there are any new risks and consider new mitigations.

What do I do during the phased return to work?

During the phased return to work, continue to check in and have regular feedback conversations with your employee. It may be necessary to adjust the plans if it’s having a negative impact on your employee’s health and wellbeing or indeed, if they are making good progress, they may wish to bring the full return date forward.

Phased return to work and pay

You will need to refer to your contract of employment to determine pay arrangements for phased returns. It may state, for example, that a phased return to work will be paid at full basic pay for a set period of time.

If your contract of employment doesn’t make reference to this, your employee should be paid in full for the hours in which they work and the remainder should be paid at the rate of sick pay to which they are entitled.

The employee may want to use any accrued annual leave to minimise the impact on their pay. If the employee is returning on amended duties, it is important for the employer and employee to agree on how this will be paid. In all cases, it is a good idea to make sure your employee is clear on the pay procedure during the return to work period and that this is captured in writing.

What happens if the absence continues or the phased return to work is not working?

In some instances, a phased return to work may not achieve the intended results, and absences may continue or the employee is simply not able to deliver the role for which they were employed. In these situations, you may need to follow your capability or performance management policy and procedure.

Please contact us today if you would like support in managing a phased return to work or training your managers to deal with these situations effectively.