How to implement a phased return to work

A phased return to work is a plan laid out for individual staff members who are returning to work after a period of long term absence (over 20 days or 4 calendar weeks). Usually phased returns last up to four weeks and are designed to ease staff members back into work by gradually reintroducing them to the work routine. For example, a phased return can consist of various adjustments to the individual’s usual working routine, such as; their working days or weeks may be initially shortened and then increased incrementally as the phased return progresses. Additionally, the phased return could include adjusted or alternative duties.

Adjusted or alternative duties

For instance, an individual may use machinery to move goods rather than their person (adjusted) or they may conduct administrative tasks rather than manual labour (alternate). Whether the individual should conduct adjusted or alternative duties depends on their line of work as well as their condition and illness. Such adjustments and alterations to both duties and work hours can help to avoid fatigue and exacerbation of their symptoms. If the adjustments are solely to work hours (i.e the individual works part time for a set amount of weeks) this is classed as a staged return.

Reasonable adjustments

GPs often refer to phased returns as Rehabilitation Programmes because they often set out a recommendation in their fit to return to work form that the individual should not conduct certain duties or work so many hours during a particular period (usually the first four weeks upon return). However, the GP is rarely an expert on what the employee’s work role consists of or what adjustments are available to the employer to arrange. Any phased returns and adjustments should take into consideration what alternative duties can be offered and the financial and operational implications to the employer from making the adjustments. The employer should be able to demonstrate that they considered all the adjustments recommended by a doctor or requested by the employee and that all reasonable adjustments were made. The area of what is reasonable is down to the employer’s discretion. The employer’s judgement can ultimately only be confirmed correct or otherwise by an employment tribunal should things develop in such a way as to lead to a claim by the employee.

Paying employees during a phased return to work

It is common practice to pay employees for the hours they have worked; however, there is no set legislation for this. In order not to alienate workers and to sustain equality it is essential to provide the individual with a fair and measured payment while on a phased return. Thus, the employee should stick to the previous examples set by the company. For instance, it is most common for employees to pay the individual solely for the hours worked during the phased return. However, if an employer has previously paid employees for un-worked hours then they should continue to do so as to avoid pay discrimination.

It is also important to note that the employee will have accrued annual leave during their absence and they can top up any un-worked hours with those accrued in their annual leave. This is only an option and should not be forced upon the employee but simply presented as choice.

Legal implications

There are various legal and health and safety implications applicable to both the employee in phased return and the employer who permits it. For example, an employer cannot dismiss an employee who is returning to work after incurring a disability on the basis that they can no longer undertake their work. The employer must seek for alternative employment internally that would suit the employee (see Archibald Vs Fife Council (2004)). In a health and safety context, it is important that employees conduct thorough risk assessments and analyses before reintroducing an employee back into a particular work environment. The employee’s condition or illness may have altered their ability to conduct work in a particular environment or may have increased their susceptibility to accidents while at work so the employer must make efforts to ensure otherwise.

Phased returns reduce the threshold of returning to work after long term absence

Although they can potentially be tedious to plan and monitor, phased returns are a great way of ensuring staff retention amongst those who have been on long term absence and they also help to encourage staff to return to work without instilling any anxiety about their ability to work properly. Furthermore, they help to clearly show a company’s concern for its staff by providing them with a tailored route back into work which is both flexible and reactive to the individual’s needs and capabilities.

It is recommended that the employer meets with the employee prior to their phased return as outlined by First Practice Management:

“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 you would anticipate her to have returned to her normal substantive duties.  Details of the meeting and the agreed phased return to work plan should be followed up in writing. “