For a return to work plan to be effective it’s essential for an employer to work in partnership with their employee. Collaborating with an employee from the outset means valuable insights can be gained to develop a personalised plan that supports a smooth transition.
Each returner’s experience and needs may differ, so it’s important to be flexible and adaptable in providing support.
Here we discuss how employers can meet their legal obligations and create an environment that enables employees returning to work after a long absence to thrive in their roles. In particular, we focus on ways to support people who have given birth within the last six months and those who are returning to work following sickness or physical or mental health issues.
What are an employer’s legal duties?
Whether or not a health condition was caused by work, it’s an employer’s responsibility to support an individual to return to work successfully. This is achieved by ensuring conditions in the workplace:
- Won’t be harmful to the individual
- Won’t make the condition worse
- Will not limit their ability to do their job.
There are several laws that are relevant to returning to work (and managing sick leave), including the Equality Act 2010, the Employment Rights Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act. Legislation provides statutory rights and protections for all employees.
Every organisation should have policies in place for managing both planned and unplanned absences, including return to work. Policies should cover all kinds of absences, from holiday leave and health appointments to looking after dependents, travel disruption and bereavement.
The point of these policies is to ensure that everyone knows what’s expected of them. Employees need to know how to book, report and behave during an absence, and what to expect on their return
Whether your organisation has a single policy, or separate policies for each situation, they should be developed in partnership with employees and their representatives. Policies should be shared with employees and be accessible to them at all times.
Should an employer communicate with an employee during their absence?
Something that can easily be overlooked is the importance of ongoing contact and conversation with a person who is absent.
Your absence policy should stipulate how often you should be in contact, and how that contact is carried out (whether email, video call, in person etc).
Conversations should be focused on the employee’s health, progress and making a plan to return to work. This contact will also help to highlight any extra support that they may need before their return to work or when they return. This might include making workplace adjustments or providing professional support. Employees may be anxious about returning to work and ongoing communication can help ease this.
When an employee is not absent due to ill health, an organisation must contact them to let them know about opportunities or developments (both positive and negative) in the workplace. Not doing so could lead to discrimination claims if the employee discovers they have missed out on (for example) a promotion opportunity on their return.
By law, employees who must be contacted are those who are on:
- Maternity leave or anything related to pregnancy
- Adoption leave
- Ordinary or shared parental leave
- Paternity leave
- Parental bereavement leave
- Leave to look after dependents
- Jury service
- Study leave or time off for training.
What should be discussed in a return-to-work meeting?
Although a return to work meeting is not a legal requirement, it’s a very good idea to have a meeting either before an employee returns to work or as soon as possible after their return.
A meeting may be no more than an informal chat between employer and employee, or it can be more structured (again this is something that an absence policy should define). The aim is for both sides to talk through subjects such as:
- Collaborating to make a return to work plan.
- Discussing a possible phased return to work.
- Considering any additional support the employee may need.
- Talking about what other employees should know about the absence, and what should remain confidential.
- Discussing recommendations from health professionals (if appropriate).
- Sharing any work updates that occurred while they were absent.
If the employer is aware of an underlying situation that caused the absence, such as work-related stress or a disability, then this should be approached sensitively. The aim is to ascertain what extra support the employee may need.
However, it’s important to be aware that the individual may not want to talk in detail about these topics. In this case, you can stress that being open will help to find and implement the best solution, but no pressure must be applied.
Is a risk assessment an essential part of a return work plan?
If the circumstances of an individual returning to work have changed, (for example, they now have a disability or a medical condition or if they are returning after pregnancy), then they will need a risk assessment as part of their return to work plan.
In the case of a pregnancy, a risk assessment should be reviewed as the pregnancy progresses. When an employee is returning to work, it’s time to reassess and ensure that working conditions are appropriate for somebody who has given birth in the last six months or is breastfeeding.
These groups can be more susceptible to harm than other workers, particularly when it comes to exposure to harmful substances. They can be more affected by longer working hours or uncomfortable working conditions and may feel the effects of posture and positioning more acutely than other workers.
Under the Equality Act 2010, an employee’s changed circumstances could mean reasonable adjustments must be made.
What are ‘reasonable adjustments’?
A return to work plan may involve an organisation making ‘reasonable adjustments’.
Reasonable adjustments are changes that an employer makes to the environment or working practices to ensure an employee isn’t disadvantaged by a disability and that they are supported, as far as is reasonably possible, to do their job. Making reasonable adjustments is one aspect of building a diverse, inclusive workplace.
The Equality Act 2010 states that employers must make reasonable adjustments, not just for employees, but also for contractors and self-employed people hired to do the job, and job applicants.
Often these adjustments are requested by the individual, but it is the employer’s responsibility to consider making reasonable adjustments if:
- They are aware of someone’s disability.
- They notice someone with a disability is having problems with aspects of the job.
- They’re aware that a return to work is potentially hindered by a disability.
This is an area where each situation is unique. Every individual is different, just as every workplace is different. The key is to find a solution that meets both parties’ needs.
What are examples of reasonable adjustments?
Reasonable adjustments could be to:
- Make changes to the physical workplace environment.
- Offer different working arrangements (such as different hours or working in a different location).
- Implement different processes or ways of working.
- Provide equipment, services or support that the individual needs.
How is ‘reasonable’ defined by law?
A reasonable adjustment for a large organisation is different from a reasonable adjustment for a smaller organisation. Although the law considers factors such as cost and practicality, all employers must be able to demonstrate that they are taking every reasonable measure. For a definition of ‘reasonable’ see the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance.
An employer is always responsible for paying for adjustments. A large organisation may be able to afford to install a wheelchair-accessible lift when a smaller organization cannot. However, a smaller organisation may still be able to make adjustments for an individual by relocating their workspace to the ground floor, for example.
Some adjustments are easy for all employers. For example, presenting information in different ways if somebody has sight or hearing difficulties, providing an accessible car parking space, providing especially adapted equipment, or simply changing the lighting above someone’s desk.
Please note that an employer does not need to change the basic nature of the job. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) gives a good example: if somebody working at a call centre asks for a role that doesn’t involve taking calls, this may be an unreasonable request simply because there are no other roles to offer.
As an employer, it is essential for you to speak directly to an employee returning to work to find out what they feel they need. It’s important not to make any assumptions and simply go ahead and implement them.
Together you should discuss what will remove or reduce the disadvantage, and also what is practical and affordable for your organisation and won’t have a negative impact on others and the work they do.