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Phased return to work

Phased return to work

Employment law solicitor Natalie Ruane explains the 'phased return to work' process in detail in her latest blog.

Many employers will be familiar with the term phased return to work, as it is a phrase that has been used for many years now by GP’s, Occupational Health Professionals and even employees.

There are more free factsheets about managing sickness absence and other employment law issues here.

What is a Phased Return to Work?

A phased return to work is an arrangement whereby an employee who has been off long-term sick from work, returns to their full duties and hours at work gradually, over a defined time period. This can be anything from 4 weeks to longer depending on any medical recommendations agreed with the employer.  Whilst a phased return to work is not needed by all employees looking to return to work after a longer period of absence, in some circumstances it can provide a valuable period of readjustment.  It is often the best way of helping the employee to re-adjust to full attendance and performance in the workplace and enables the employee to get back into the routine of work duties, at the same time as maintaining their recovery.

A phased return to work is often included as a recommendation on the employee’s GP Fit Note and/or Occupational Health report.  It offers employees the opportunity to return to work at an earlier stage of recovery from illness, as they may not yet be fully fit to do their full role, by allowing them to do fewer hours and/or modified duties based on a structured return to work plan.  By facilitating an earlier return to work this allows the employee to settle back into a normal routine and this has been shown to improve overall wellbeing.

Planning a Phased Return to Work

How a phased return to work is planned will depend to a large extent on the reason for the employee’s absence, as recuperation rates vary greatly.  Those who return to work too soon after illness may not be able to work to their full capacity, even though they may appear sufficiently medically fit to return to their jobs.  It would be easy for managers to misinterpret issues such as difficulty concentrating, failing to remember or inability to make informed decisions as poor performance.  Therefore, it’s important for employers to find out about an employee’s medical condition and their expected rehabilitation rates.

Phased return to work planning with both the employer and employee is vital for an employee successfully returning to work, particularly when used early during long term sickness absence.  CIPD and ACAS research demonstrates that an employee is more likely to return to work when they talk to their employers during periods of sickness and make plans for returning to work.  These plans can be powerful tools in helping an employee get back to work quickly when they become ill.  The purpose of a planned return to work is to guide a discussion and set a framework for actions to consider when an employee has been absent from work for between four to six weeks.  It provides the necessary and relevant information and is flexible and open to regular review.

Assisting in an employee’s phased return to work, including referring the individual to occupational health prior to their return to work as a positive step in supporting the individual (both in returning to work and during the absence) is a more pro-active approach than waiting to see what it says on each fit note that arrives and how long it is for.  It also ensures that managers are applying a fair and consistent approach, in accordance with any Absence Policy for  staff within an organisation.

Fit for Work and a Phased Return to Work

Managers being able to seek advice on the effect that work might have on an employee’s health and, equally, the effect that an employee’s health issues might be having on their ability to work, is crucial when an employee is returning to work following a sickness absence.  However, not all organisations have access to occupational health for advice on employee health matters.  

This is why the Government’s Fit for Work scheme offers free, expert and impartial work-related health advice to GPs, employers and employees to help those who are struggling in work with a health condition, or have been off work for four weeks or more due to sickness.

The Fit for Work website has more information on managing sickness absence and a return to work.  Note there is a separate scheme and website for Scotland, but it is essentially the same service.

Pay During a Phased Return to Work

In the event that the organisation does not have an Absence Policy, it is important you consider what the organisation has done previously with regards to other employees during their sickness absence.  For example, if it is common practice to pay an employee for any hours un-worked throughout a phased return to work then it is important you treat all employees in an equitable and consistent manner during their phased return to work.

There are no set guidelines with regards to paying an employee during their phased return to work.  However the safest arrangement is to pay the employee their full pay even though they are only working reduced hours as that is only a temporary arrangement for a short period of time but this can vary depending on whether the employee is hourly paid or on a salary. If you only pay the employee for the reduced hours without their written consent, this could be an unlawful deduction of wages.

Annual Leave During a Phased Return to Work

It is worth highlighting that an employee will continued to accrue annual leave during their sickness absence.  One option open to the organisation and employee (if hourly paid) is for them to consider whether they want to use any or part of their annual leave days to top up any hours un-worked during the phased return to work period.  This way the employee will be using accrued annual leave and not disadvantaged (in terms of pay) during the phased return to work.  It also has the benefit of the employee not then being left with too much annual leave to take all later.

Phased Return to Work Review Meetings

The employee’s manager should meet with the employee prior to their return to work; advising of their right to be accompanied if the meeting is being held under a formal process which provides this right.  The purpose of the meeting is to discuss and agree upon the detail of the phased return to work plan.  The plan should include details of both parties’ agreed expectations, including  any amended duties, reduced hours,  any gradual increase in worked hours and over what time period,  any review dates and the date by which you would anticipate the employee to have returned to their normal substantive duties.  What happened at the meeting and the agreed phased return to work plan should be followed up in writing.

Review meetings should be conducted in a supportive manner and should allow the manager to assess how the employee is getting on in their return to work and whether there is anything further the organisation can do to support the employee to remain at work and recover further.  Details of any subsequent review meetings should also be followed up in writing.

For more advice on this area please contact me, Natalie Ruane at nr@burnetts.co.uk or on 01228 552 214.

About the Author

Natalie Ruane profile photo

Natalie Ruane

Natalie is a Partner and leads the Employment Law & HR team and specialises in education.

Published: Tuesday 3rd November 2015
Categorised: Employment

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