What does a phased return to work mean?

What does a phased return to work mean?

We may think we know what a phased return is, but what does a phased return to work mean? A phased return to work is an arrangement which is agreed between an employee and their employer. It is typically used after a long absence to enable the employee to gradually return to their usual hours. If used effectively, a phased return can result in an employee returning to work sooner than would otherwise be the case.

It is important to remember that a phased return is different from a flexible working request or a reasonable adjustment, these differences will be referred to in more detail later.

Five tips to make a phased return to work successful


1. Engage with the employee at an early stage


It is important to have discussions with the employee as soon as possible in order to establish a way forward. For more information on how to keep in touch with employees on long term absence view our blog Long term sick – keeping in touch.

The fit note from the employee, may well contain information and recommendations regarding potential steps to enable the employee to return to work, such as a phased return.  For more information on fit notes read our blog Fit note: guidance for employers

As said above, a phased return can be an effective tool to enable an employee to return to work. However, the nature of the phased return must reflect the individual situation in order to be effective.

Care should be taken to ensure that where a phased return is being explored it is an effective solution, any timeframes are achievable for the employee, and plans are made to minimise disruption to the organisation. Such planning is unlikely to be effective without meaningful and regular input from the employee concerned.

2. Apply the applicable policies consistently


The organisation is likely to have policies relating to the management of sickness absence.  Return to work meetings are often used to better understand the situation and establish next steps. However, where a phased return to work may be potentially beneficial, it would be useful to explore such arrangements as soon as possible, in order to ensure that all runs smoothly when the employee returns.

The policy may provide information on the circumstances when a phased return would be appropriate, the person within the organisation who would be responsible for the process and when input from external agencies such as occupational health may be appropriate.

It is important that all employees are treated fairly.  A way of achieving that is to consistently apply the relevant policies and provide HR training on managing sickness absence. If a line manager adopts an inconsistent approach when deciding whether or not a phased return should be permitted, or how the phased return would be managed, this may cause resentment and cause employees to feel that they are being treated unfairly compared with others.


3. Ensure any communication is clear


It is often important for communication to be clear. This is particularly so in situations, such as a phased return, where various milestones have been discussed. For example, there may well be various discussions relating to how long the phased return should apply for, and the various stages involved in the process.


It is vital that all parties involved in the process are aware of the arrangements that have been made. Uncertainty around what is (or is not) in place can disrupt any plans and undermine the goal of supporting the employee to return to work.


4. Consider consulting with occupational health


In complex cases, it may be beneficial to obtain advice from occupational health. Such a step would help to establish whether or not a phased return would be appropriate in the circumstances and, if so, what timeframe would be realistic.

It is ultimately for the employer to decide what should be done. However, obtaining advice from occupational health means that the employer can make an informed decision based on the information available. In such a situation, it may be useful to have HR training on the role of occupational health, and how to use that resource effectively.

5. Seek to be flexible


It is common for events to occur which result in plans needing to be changed. For example, the health of the employee may have deteriorated, meaning that it is not possible to begin the phased return as planned. Alternatively, the employee may have embarked on the phased return and experienced difficulties. In such circumstances, it is important to review the plan, and potentially amend it, so that progress can continue to be made.


The difference between a phased return and reasonable adjustments

Essentially, an employer is under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. Whereas a phased return is a tool to reduce sickness absence and, depending on the organisation’s policies, may be available regardless of whether or not the individual is a disabled person within the meaning of the applicable legislation.

It may be useful to obtain advice on the topic of reasonable adjustments. A failure to provide reasonable adjustments may result in the employee bringing discrimination claims at an Employment Tribunal. Therefore, it is important that the issue is addressed appropriately.


Flexible working requests

An employee could make a flexible working request to their employer. Perhaps, the request is to work part time instead of full time. All employees can make a flexible working request and, unlike a phased return, it is not part of a sickness absence process.

There is a process to follow in relation to making, and responding to, flexible working requests and it may well be useful for employers to gain advice on this topic.

Plotkin & Chandler works exclusively in the areas of HR and employment law and assists both employees and employers.

If you are an organisation, we have expertise in delivering HR consultancy and HR training in all aspects of effectively managing sickness absence, and implementing measures to bring about continuous improvement. In addition to our HR services, we support clients with Defending an Employment Tribunal Claim.

If you are an individual who would like advice on a matter concerning long term absence or you would like to discuss bringing an Employment Tribunal Claim, we would be pleased to hear from you.

Please contact us on 020 3923 8616 or via email on info@plotkinandchandler.com to discuss your needs and the ways in which we can help.






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