Phased Return to Work Guidelines

By Carol Smith
31 Oct 2019

There are two stages for managing long-term employee absences. The first involves managing their absence and the second is about managing their return to work.

When an employee has been off work for a long time, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to pick up from where they left off.

You should have a process to follow when this occurs. Consider a phased return to work as an option for helping them readjust to work duties and environment again.

In this piece, we’ll explore the phased return to work guidelines after a long-term absence due to ill health. In it, we’ll highlight the process of easing them back in and offering support to ensure their longevity.


What is a phased return to work?

It’s the term used to detail the process of easing an employee back into work after a long period of absence due to ill health.

But what’s considered a ‘long-term absence’? According to the government, you may consider an absence as long-term when the employee is off work for more than four weeks.

A phased return to work involves an arrangement between you and your employee. It allows them to come back to work on one or all of the following conditions:

It could be after a serious injury or operation or a phased return to work after stress, anxiety or depression. Most times, employees can return to work with care and consideration.

However, when they leave mental health issues to fester, it can develop into other underlying conditions leading to longer periods of absence from work.

Whatever the case may be, it’s important to have policies in place that addresses absences and the return to work process.

So why carry out a phased return to work after sickness? It has many benefits for you and your staff. In terms of expenses, it’s cheaper to support a returning employee than to recruit and train a new one.

It also encourages loyalty, increases morale and retention as employees feel more valued and are less likely to leave your organisation.


Phased return to work pay

While employees are off work sick, they’re entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they qualify for it.

Upon their return to work, pay depends on the arrangement made. If they return to work but on reduced hours, they should get their normal rate of pay for the hours worked.

However, if they’re taking on lighter duties then it’s up to yourself and your employee to agree on a rate of pay. It’s a good idea to put any agreement in writing to avoid confusion down the line.

The same applies for a phased return to work holiday entitlement. No matter how long they’re off for, their statutory holiday entitlement builds up while they’re off sick. If they’re not entitled to sick pay, they can ask to use their paid holiday as opposed to unpaid sick leave.

It’s worth noting, you can’t force them to use their annual leave if they’re eligible for sick leave.


Phased return to work plan examples

Although not a legal obligation, it’s good business practice to have a plan to support employees when they return to work. The plan may vary depending on the reason for the employee’s absence.

If an employee’s absence was due to stress or depression, in some cases, returning to work can play an important role on their road to recovery.

As well as providing them with a support network, it also contributes to regaining self-confidence and getting back into some sort of routine.

For example, if it’s a phased return to work after depression or other mental health conditions, the plan should consider triggers within the workplace and take steps to minimise them.

You can base your phased return to work plan on the example below:


How long should a phased return to work be?

There’s no set duration as to how long this period lasts. The phased return process may vary depending on the specific circumstance.

For example, if it’s a phased return to work after maternity leave, the employee may request:

  • To come into work for three days a week instead of five
  • Or to start work an hour later and finish an hour earlier.

The reason could span from anything from weaning the child off breast milk to adjusting to being away from them for extended periods.

Whatever the situation, you'll need to agree on the duration of the phased return to work with your employee before they begin work.


Expert support

Speak to one of our experts for help creating or updating your equality and discrimination policies. Alternatively, if you have other HR and employment law concerns, contact us today on 0808 145 3380.

About the Author

Carol Smith

Carol joined Croner in 2001 as an Employment Consultant advising a wide range of clients on all aspects of Employment Law and HR practice. She demonstrates particular expertise in complex disciplinary, grievance matters and reorganisation / redundancy.


Carol Smith

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