Phased Return To Work – What do Employers Need To Know?

A phased return to the workplace and normal duties is an excellent way to get staff back to work safely and successfully without overwhelming them.


James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.


12 October 2021


17 July 2024
9 min read
Phased Return To Work – What do Employers Need To Know?

After a long period of time away from work, a phased return to the workplace and normal duties is an excellent way to get staff back to work safely and successfully without overwhelming them with too many hours or tasks. 


Getting Employees Back To Work

A phased return to work is the phrase used to describe an employee's gradual return to normal working duties after a period of absence, and is an alternative to them resuming their full hours and responsibilities straight away.

This approach is usually used when the employee has been absent for a long period of time due to ill health, physical or mental illness or injury, but other scenarios apply too. 

Whether the reason for absence is related to ill health, maternity leave, significant trauma, bereavement or stress, a well-planned and phased return to work can help employees feel supported and able to resume their normal duties over a period of around 6-8 weeks.

Supporting Employees 

If you are an employer that has one or more employees absent from work for a significant period of time, then when the time comes for them to return to their usual place of work, you may need to facilitate a phased return to work. 

To do this successfully, you should have a detailed understanding of your obligations when handling this process under employment law, and be able to handle the matter sensitively. We will help you with both points throughout this article.

HR Support For Employers 

Neathouse Partners provide employment law & HR services for employers. Our solution-driven, personal service ensures that employers have access to a named and dedicated HR or employment lawyer to help them expertly navigate HR best practice and employment law, regardless of how complex the issue may seem. 

Our team aims to free up your time to focus on running a commercially successful business, safe in the knowledge that you are 100% compliant with all aspects of UK Employment Law.

If you have an absent employee that is due to return to work, a phased return may be beneficial to both you and them. Neathouse Partners can help you to balance your business need to get the employee back to work with the practical need to meet employer obligations under UK employment law whilst also ensuring that the returning member of staff feels comfortable, and fully supported throughout. 

Read on to find out more about phased return to work processes including frequently asked questions about what this entails and how to ensure that any phased return agreed with an employee meets your employer obligations under UK employment law. 

What Is A Phased Return To Work? 

As we touched upon above, following a long period of absence, a phased return to work is the process of getting an employee back to work, usually over a period of several weeks. The phasing element of the process could be related to the hours worked or the duties they are required to carry out. 

For example, a full-time employee may want to return on a part-time basis initially, or if their role involves a lot of customer interaction, they may wish to settle back into back office life first, before working in their usual customer-facing role again. 

When Is This Process Needed?

Most commonly, a phased return to work is used when a member of staff has suffered long-term physical or mental illness, a severe injury, maternity leave, stress, or suffered a particularly traumatic event or bereavement. 

In situations like this, the prospect of returning to work following such a long absence can often be intimidating or extremely stressful for an employee. 

Any of these reasons would mean a phased return to work would be an appropriate course of action. This approach would provide the employee with the time and support they need to adjust to being back in a work environment along with everything this entails. For example, increased face-to-face contact, commuting, longer concentration spans and new range of movements. 

A phased return to work aims to make the whole process of resuming full duties as manageable as possible and usually takes place over 4-6 weeks.

Who Requests It? 

Is it up to the employer to offer a phased return for long-term absent employees or is it down to the employee to request it themselves? 

Generally speaking, when dealing with long-term absence due to injury, ill health or other significant personal events, then the ball is in the employee's court when it comes to initiating their return to work. 

Regarding specific discussions on implementing a phased return, this can be started by either side but will usually be led by the employee themselves. The onus is then on the employer to do as much as they reasonably can to facilitate the requests made. 

Alternatively, an employee's GP or occupational health assessor can make a request for a staggered return to normal hours and duties. GPs are required to provide a ‘fit note’ following long-term absence and there is space for additional recommendations to be made, including the option of a phased return on the form. 

Does Anything Change When The Employee Comes Back? 

Does anything change when the employee comes back?

When an employee returns to work following long-term sick leave or an absence due to stress, they may now qualify as having a disability under the Equality Act 2010 that they didn’t have before.

This means that you, as an employer; 

  • are required to make any and all reasonable adjustments for that employee
  • they cannot be discriminated against or have their job terminated as a result of their condition.

Failure to comply with this legislation could leave you open to claims of unfair dismissal or discrimination. 

Under The Act, a disability is defined as a physical or mental condition that has a significant and long-term impact on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Certain conditions provide employees with automatic protection from discrimination from the day of diagnosis. These include; cancer, a visual impairment, MS, HIV, and severe facial disfigurement.

Benefits To The Employer

So far, we have focused on the employee and what needs to be done to support them during a staggered return to their normal duties, but there are also several benefits for employers themselves to consider when faced with the need to facilitate this process. 

  • Employees who feel valued, listened to and cared for are more likely to hold their employer in high regard. This is more likely to result in longer, dedicated service and a positive working environment within the team.

  • If a smooth transition back to work isn’t well managed by the employer, you run the risk of the employee not completing their return at all, which would incur expensive recruitment and training costs for a replacement, and potentially claims of discrimination.

  • By providing encouragement and support to get a member of staff back to work in a way that they feel is manageable and comfortable for them, you may be able to save money on overtime costs or temping staff that would otherwise be needed to cover the role in their absence.

Benefits To The Employee


If a member of staff is nervous about coming back to work, even on a staggered or part-time basis then it may be worth discussing the following benefits that a phased return to work could offer them;

  • Often resuming some element of normal activities or routine can be beneficial to helping an individual get back on their feet after illness or to resume a sense of normality. 
  • They will regain financial stability and have a sense of structure in their days 
  • A phased return is a good way to build up a tolerance for increased physical activity or mental stimulation if they have been shielded from either during their absence. 
  • It provides an opportunity to catch up on mandatory staff training, learn new procedures that may have been implemented in a stress-free environment without the pressures of their full role to manage as well. 
  • Introductions and conversations with colleagues can be held over a series of weeks to re-acquaint and set expectations about any new working practices that may be needed.

What Do Employers Need To Do?

Matters of employment law come with lots of rules and regulations that need to be adhered to. Getting this wrong can be costly, which makes professional partnerships with HR and employment experts like Neathouse Partners even more appealing, because we can guide you every step of the way. 

Below, we’ve outlined some of the key things you should be aware of or have in place already, when it comes to managing and facilitating a phased return to work: 

Have A Return To Work Policy

Every company should have a return-to-work procedure clearly outlined within their sickness or absence policy, or the employee handbook. By clearly setting out the process that will be followed after an absence from work, be it short or long term, both employer and employee know what to expect.

Clear return-to-work policies will also ensure that each instance is handled fairly and consistently and that both parties know what to expect from the other, what steps they need to follow and any obligations they are required to fulfil. This could include attending a return-to-work interview, or having a phased return plan agreed in writing for example.

Consider Occupational Health Support 

Some companies will have a blanket policy that dictates that anyone returning from long-term absence should speak with an occupational health professional before resuming their duties. Others will make this decision on a case-by-case basis. 

In either case, if an employer has any concerns about whether a member of staff is fit to return to work, then a referral to an occupational health practitioner would provide a valuable assessment of an employee's readiness to return to work.

You Don’t Have To Agree To A Phased Return

Under the Equality Act 2010, you must make all reasonable adjustments to help disabled employees return to work and do their job but if they are not disabled, or if the adjustments are not reasonable, then you do not have to agree to a phased return to work.

Refusal of such requests should be handled extremely carefully and under the advice of a lawyer practising employment and HR law. 

If a failure to agree to a phased return later results in the dismissal of the employee due to capability to perform their role or on ill health grounds, then there could be a clear case for unfair dismissal if the employee wasn’t given the opportunity of a phased return to work. This could prove to be extremely costly.

Flexibility and Sensitivity Is Key 

When arranging meetings to discuss an employee's return to work, employers should aim to be as flexible and sensitive to the employee's needs as possible. This includes considering the timing, location and duration of any meeting proposed or held. 

As the whole process can feel very daunting to somebody who has been away from work for a long time, meeting at a neutral, easily accessible location is usually a good idea. 

Employees should be given the opportunity to be accompanied by a colleague, friend, or trade union official and ultimately, the employer should make sure that the employee is fully ready to return to the workplace. 

Putting the employee in touch with the firm's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a great way to share additional resources and support that might be available to them during the duration of the adjustment period.

Contacting The Employee

Employers should handle contact with their employee with good judgement and sensitivity throughout the time of the absence. Some members of staff will respond better than others to ‘check in’ emails or phone calls, so it’s important to get an understanding of what their preferences are around contact during the absence. 

It’s important that any communications made, do not in any way make the employee feel rushed into returning to work or guilty for not being there. Offering access to relevant support services and enquiring how an individual is feeling would however generally be acceptable.

Health And Safety Risk Assessment 

Employers are legally required to assess health and safety risks affecting their employees in their place of work with a risk assessment. This should be done regularly and cover key factors such as access, lighting, fire safety, obstacles and temperature for example. 

Risk assessments may vary in different areas of the building, for example a factory production line would have a much more detailed assessment than a small administrative office. 

When an employee returns to work, this is an ideal opportunity to reassess any health and safety risk factors that may have changed as a result of their illness or injury. They may for example need lift access or a larger working area to accommodate a wheelchair. 


How Long Should A Phased Return Be? 

Although there is no legal requirement dictating the length of a phased return, the general timeframe that employers tend to work to is over 4-6 weeks. It is however up to the employer and the employee to agree on the length and the terms of the staggered return. 

The length of the phased return will largely depend on the existing or amended needs of the employee.

For example, some may be able to return to work with a small adjustment to start and finish time, whereas others might only be able to work a few hours at a time whilst managing fatigue or medication side effects. Other considerations might include altering duties to shield them from high pressure or particularly noisy or stressful environments if possible.

Related Questions 

Does The Employee Get Full Pay?

Does the employee get full pay?

Remuneration during a phased return to work will largely depend on the sick pay policy of the employer. Regardless of any policy, the employee is entitled to be paid for the hours they work at their usual rate of pay. 

This means that if they have returned to work, but are working fewer hours than they previously were, they will only be paid for the reduced amount of hours worked. If this poses a financial problem for the employee, there may be options available to top up pay with either statutory sick pay or occupational sick pay. 

Whatever outcome both parties decide upon, this should be agreed formally in writing. 

To discuss options surrounding employee pay during a phased return to work, contact Neathouse Partners expert team.


Phased return-to-work plans are a brilliant way of easing employees back into their normal working routine following a long period of absence without overwhelming them. 

Welcoming an employee back to work following a long-term absence due to stress, sick leave or other extenuating circumstances is a process that should be handled in line with HR and employment law.

Employers should ensure:

  • The employee is ready and able to come back to work, certified by a doctor's fit note or occupational health assessment 
  • Any reasonable adjustments to the workplace that are needed to accommodate their return are made 
  • The company’s return to work procedure is followed 
  • Health and safety risk assessments are completed where relevant

Need Support? 

Neathouse Partners can assist employers with all aspects of employment and HR law including providing advice and support when managing phase return to work arrangements to employees. 

If you need advice on managing phased return-to-works, our expert team is here to help. 

Contact us today for an informal discussion about your needs. 

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