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Blog • 19.08.19

Phased return to work after sickness

Laura R
HR Consultant Team Manager

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When an employee has been off work with long-term sickness it’s sometimes beneficial for them to make a gradual, phased return to work instead of jumping straight back in with their full contractual hours and duties.

A phased return to work might involve:

  • a shorter working day
  • working fewer days per week
  • carrying out a reduced workload.

The purpose of a phased return to work is to help make the transition from absence to normal working as easy as possible.

Individuals who have been absent from work long-term could be experiencing, or recovering from, a serious health condition. It’s important that you do what you can to make their return to work as straightforward as possible.

Remember that a phased return means increasing hours and demands gradually. Be sure to plan the phased return over a defined period and aim to be back up to full hours and duties by the end of it.

How is a phased return to work arranged?

The recommendation to adopt a phased return to work will often come from the employee’s GP or an occupational health professional. This can be in the form of a ‘fit note’, which is likely to define the period of phased return. It might also detail any adjustments that need to be made to facilitate the employee’s return to work.

If you’re unable to provide the adjustments detailed, then the employee would remain off sick and retain their entitlement to sick pay. Remember that if your employee has a disability, you’ll be obliged to explore and implement reasonable adjustments.

In the absence of a fit note, it’s still sensible to discuss a phased return with any employee who has had a significant period of time off due to illness.

The phased return to work must be agreed upon by both employee and employer, to ensure both parties are happy with the arrangement.

Length of phased return to work

A phased return to work might last for a week or two, or up to several months. Your employee’s GP will often indicate what period of time will be appropriate.

Within this time frame, you should devise a plan for the employee’s hours and demands to increase gradually, so that they’re back to full hours and duty by the end of the time period.

What are the benefits of a phased return to work?

A phased return to work is mutually beneficial for the employer and employee.

Here are some advantages of a phased return to work:

Saves on costs

As the UK economy lost almost £92 billion in 2019  (£91.9 billion) as a result of ill-health related absence and presenteeism in the workplace, it follows that the earlier your employee returns to work, the less their absence will cost your business in sick pay and potentially cover staff.

Improves retention

If your employee’s return to work is gradual there’s an increased likelihood they’ll make a sustained return. It’s not in the interests of either the employee or the employer to have them return to work only to feel overwhelmed and go off sick again.

Boosts performance

Showing that you’re paying attention to your employee’s needs, and doing all you can to support them, will make them feel valued and listened to. This will show both them, and the wider team, that your company culture is one of help and support, which can lead to a boost in morale and overall productivity.

Phased return to work plan

It’s sensible to agree a phased return plan before the employee comes back to work so that everyone is clear what to expect. This will also minimise any anxiety associated with the return to work.

1. Before the employee returns

  • Make sure to keep the employee informed about any updates or news from the company while they’re off sick. This will help them to feel like they’re still part of the team and ease any worries about returning. Take care not to bombard them with information, though – frequent calls or emails may have the opposite effect.
  • It could be a good idea to get clued up about the individual’s health issue if they’ve shared the information with you. This will help you to talk to them and give you an understanding of their problem. The employee themselves is normally your best guide if they have an underlying or significant health condition.
  • Agree anything that will be said to other employees about the absence. No information should be shared without the employee’s permission.

2. Making a plan

  • The phased return to work plan should cover any change in duties, the expected number of hours worked, how long the phased return will last and any review dates.
  • Remember to increase hours/tasks gradually so that by the end of the period, the employee is back to full tasks and hours.
  • Make sure that the return to work plan accounts for employment legislation, for example, the Health & Safety legal requirements.
  • Keep a record of the plan to refer back to if needed.

3. When the employee returns

  • return to work meeting is recommended to ensure you’re clear about your employee’s needs, to enable them to raise any points of concern and to ensure that everyone is clear about expectations.
  • Try to make sure that your team member isn’t bombarded with emails and tasks as soon as they arrive, and be prepared to be flexible in terms of what jobs they perform. The most important thing is that their return happens at a pace that allows them to resume normal duties within a reasonable period.
  • Schedule a weekly catch up to review progress and address any issues or concerns.
  • It’s important to remain communicative and understanding when the employee returns to work. Recovery from illness isn’t straightforward and it’s possible that your team member may have some difficult days. Try to remember that they may not be at the best of their ability straight away.
  • If it seems like a phased return needs to be extended, discuss this with the employee. Consider that extending a phased return may be more beneficial than having the employee return to sickness absence.
  • In some instances, it becomes apparent that even with support and adjustments, the employee isn’t well enough to work. The employee will normally realise this themselves and talk to you, but if this doesn’t happen, you may need to take the initiative and encourage them to return to their GP for further advice.

Does phased return to work effect pay?

It’s really important to be clear with the employee about the effect a phased return will have on their pay. This will depend on their contract of employment.

If they have company sick pay, this can be used to “top up” pay on days not worked. If they are on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and you structure the phased return appropriately, they may be able to claim a proportion of SSP for the days not worked. However, it’s very possible that the employee won’t be paid for the days not worked. This needs to be made really clear to avoid a nasty surprise on payday.

If your employee asks to use their annual leave to top up their salary, you can agree to this, especially if they might otherwise face a situation of hardship.

The content of this blog is for general information only. Please don’t rely on it as legal or other professional advice as that is not what we intend. You can find more detail on this in our Terms of Website Use. If you require professional advice, please get in touch.

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If you have a member of staff undergoing a phased return to work and you would like some advice on your obligations as an employer, our HR consultants can help.

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