Managing the Return to Work

return to work


Returning to work after an extended period of leave, such as long-term sick leave or maternity leave, can be a daunting prospect for employees. Having the full support of their employer can help to ease an employee’s concerns and address any practicalities, making this transitional period back into the workplace more likely to result in a successful return.

From the employer’s perspective, a proactive and supportive approach to an employee’s return to work following a period of absence can bring many benefits. This could be where, for example, the employee has been on long-term sick leave, or following a period of maternity or other parental leave. It could also be where someone has taken a career break, or a sabbatical, and is looking to re-enter the workplace in the same or different role.

In this guide for employers, we look at how to support members of staff returning to work after a lengthy period of leave, including the circumstances in which support should be provided and the employer’s legal obligations within this context. We also examine the benefits for employers of supporting staff with their return to work, plus the potential risks of failing to do so, together with the ways in which support can be provided.


Is return to work support mandatory by law?

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, all employers are under a duty to ensure, as far as possible, the health, safety and welfare of employees at work. This includes both their physical and emotional wellbeing. This means that even though there is no express duty to support an employee on their return to work, the provision of adequate support forms part of the employer’s statutory duty in relation to health and wellbeing.

There is also a separate statutory duty on employers to provide reasonable adjustments in the workplace for anyone suffering with a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010, including members of staff who may have developed a disability as result of an ongoing illness or injury. Under the 2010 Act, a person will be classed as having a disability if they have either a physical and/or mental impairment which is having a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

In this context, a reasonable adjustment refers to a change deliberately designed to remove or reduce any barriers that a person may be faced with in performing their job role on returning to work. This could relate to a physical feature of the workplace premises, such as the provision of a ramp or lift to create wheelchair access. It can also relate to various different aspects of the employee’s working conditions, including the hours an employee is required to work and the duties they are required to undertake.

As such, the adjustment required could be a physical adaptation to the workplace or the provision of specialised equipment, although what is classed as “reasonable” will depend on the size of the employer’s undertaking and the resources available to the employer. A reasonable adjustment could also be the employer agreeing to change the way in which things are done, such as allowing for flexible working on either a short or long-term basis.

The law does not require employers to make adjustments that are unreasonable, such as where the cost outweighs the likely benefit, or where it is likely to cause significant disruption to their business, but they should still try to find other ways to support a disabled employee on their return to work in removing or reducing any disadvantage.


Benefits of supporting an employee’s return to work

There are various benefits for employers from supporting those returning to work. These include avoiding incidents of recurring sickness absence for employees coming back to work after a period of long-term sick leave. It can also help to retain valuable members of staff, including those returning from sick leave, but also those returning from maternity or other parental leave, or from some form of career break, who may easily feel forced to resign if their employer fails to provide adequate support on their return.

By providing support, this will help to retain a positive working relationship between the employer and employee. It will also help to pre-empt any problems and to address any issues, such as finding new flexible ways of working if there are shortfalls in any initial arrangement or making additional adjustments to the employee’s working conditions.

The provision of adequate support can also help to boost employee engagement, helping those who have been absent from the workplace for a prolonged period of time to get back up to pre-absence performance levels as soon as possible, but without any undue pressure.


Failing to provide adequate support with the return to work

Failing to provide adequate support on an employee’s return to work can result in issues such as increased incidence of absenteeism due a relapse of any illness or injury, for which the employer would potentially be responsible. This could also extend to a situation where a new parent or someone returning from an extended career break is put under undue pressure on their return to work, or is not fully supported by their employer and, as a result, is signed off sick due to work-related stress.

Even in cases where an employee attempts to work through any stress-related difficulties, doing the best that they can to manage their stress levels without the employer’s support, this can still have an adverse effect on the employer’s business, especially when it comes to reduced performance and lost productivity. This is known as presenteeism, where an employee is not fully functioning at work because of poor physical or mental health.

In the worst case scenario, a wholesale lack of support on an employee’s return could result in the loss of a valuable member of staff who feels forced to resign. In these cases, the employee could potentially claim constructive dismissal before the employment tribunal on the basis of the employer’s breach of statutory duty to ensure their health and wellbeing.

For the employer who fails to make reasonable adjustments at work for anyone returning from long-term sick leave with a possible disability, either physical or psychological, this could also result in a claim before the employment tribunal for unlawful discrimination.


How to support employees in returning to work

Time away from work may leave employees feeling anxious and ‘out of the loop’. They may need to re-familiarise themselves with certain ways of doing things or any changes made, such as new working methods or technology. Depending on how long an employee has been absent from the workplace and what, if any, changes have been made in their absence, as well as the nature of their role and responsibilities, they may even need a short period of re-training. Additional support and adjustments may also be needed, depending on the reason for being off work.


Return to work after long-term sick leave

If an employee has been off work on long-term sick leave, following either a serious illness or injury, even if they have made a complete recovery, they may benefit from a phased return to work. For the first few weeks, they may also need other adjustments to be made to their working arrangements, including amended duties, altered hours or workplace adaptations. The employee’s latest fit note from their GP, or the findings from their occupational health assessment, should suggest ways in which an employer can support someone’s return to work.

Employers should take care not to put too much pressure on an employee returning to work following an extended period of sick leave, otherwise potentially risking a relapse in their condition or other issues arising. This can often be the case where someone has been off sick due to work-related stress, where a return to work on full-time hours, undertaking the same workload and with the same responsibilities, can easily result in further periods of sick leave caused by undue pressure being placed on that individual.


Return to work after maternity or other parental leave

Statutory maternity and adoption leave lasts for a maximum of 52 weeks and, while some mothers or adoptive parents may choose not to take their full 52-week entitlement, many will be absent from work for a period of one year. Equally, with shared parental leave, parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave, where either the new mother or father, or prospective parents adopting a child, may again be off work for almost a year.

In any one of these scenarios, a return to work can present various practical and emotional challenges for new parents, including being away from their infant or child, ensuring that childcare arrangements are panning out, not to mention feeling fatigued. It can therefore often be a good idea for employers to be open to the idea of a more flexible working arrangement, at least for a short period of time, until a new parent has settled into the daily pressures of being back in the workplace. Flexible working can include, for example, part-time or compressed hours, flexible start and finish times, and hybrid-working.


Return to work following an extended career break

Returning to work after a career break can also be challenging, where a returner can be a person of any gender, returning from any type of career break, including where someone has taken several years out of the workplace to be a stay-at-home parent or carer, or where they are returning from sabbatical. Again, in either scenario, getting back to work will take time and commitment, not only on the part of the employee, but also the employer.

There are various ways in which an individual can return to the workplace, including returning directly into the same or similar role, or even by starting a completely different role with a new employer. However, whatever an employee’s reason for taking a career break, they may want or need a role that is flexible, not least where they continue to have caring commitments, or would otherwise like to create a healthy work-life balance.


Practical measures to support a return to work

There are various practical measures that can be taken by employers to help support staff returning to work after an extended period of leave.

A return to work interview is one of the most effective ways to approach the return to work. A focused discussion with the returning employee may help to reduce further absence and can help ensure the returning employee transitions back into the workplace environment with greater ease and with necessary support from their employer.

Return to work interviews also offer managers and HR personnel the opportunity to collate important information about the nature, length and frequency of staff absences.

A gradual return to pre-leave hours and responsibilities following a lengthy period of sick leave, or any other type of leave, often represents one of the best options available to the employer to ensure a smooth transition back into the workplace. By returning to work on a part-time basis, or undertaking amended duties, this will enable an employee to reacclimatise to the working environment, and for the employer to assess how well they are able to cope.

There are various other types of flexible working arrangements and workplace adjustments that can also help an employee to cope, especially if they have ongoing health problems or may be at risk of a relapse. In these cases, a risk assessment should be undertaken by the employer where, as with any other workplace hazard, the employer has a duty under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to conduct a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to which an employee is exposed at work. However, in taking reasonable steps to control these risks, the employer may need to refer the employee to an occupational health specialist prior to any return to work for a tailored assessment of their needs based on the nature of the employee’s role and responsibilities.

Additionally, in all cases, it is important for employers to monitor an employee’s health and wellbeing, and the effectiveness of any measures put in place, by way of regular one-to-ones and appraisals. In any initial return-to-work interview, an employee may report feeing positive and optimistic but, with the passage of time, they may begin to feel under pressure or unable to cope. They may also feel reluctant to report any difficulties, having already been off work for an extended period of time, where employees should be encouraged to be open and honest, so that any additional measures can be put in place to help support them.


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Return to work FAQs

Is a return to work a legal requirement?

Employees are not required to return to work after a period of leave, where they can resign instead. Equally, employers are not always required to keep an employee’s job open after extended leave, although much will depend on the circumstances.

What is an example of a poor working condition?

A common example of a poor working condition is where employees are expected by their employer to work late on a regular basis, beyond their normal contractual hours, without the offer of any additional pay or time off in lieu.

How do you deal with an unhappy work environment?

The way in which an unhappy work environment should be dealt with by an employer will depend on the root cause, although employees should be encouraged to come forward with any complaints or to lodge a formal grievance in writing.

Why do I feel like I don't want to work anymore?

It is not uncommon for employees to feel disengaged and demotivated in the workplace, not least if they are experiencing signs and symptoms of work-related stress which, in turn, can often lead to employee burnout.

Last updated: 17 November 2023


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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