Employees who can’t (or won’t) return to work

Employees who can’t (or won’t) return to work

Employees who can’t (or won’t) return to work

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant drastic changes for the UK’s workplaces, including three lockdowns, many social restrictions and government advice that people should only leave home to attend work if they “cannot reasonably work from home”. While everyone is still advised to continue to work from home where possible, if that’s not possible, they’re now able to attend the workplace. And as the UK begins its phased emergence from lockdown, employers will now begin the process of returning some (or all) of their people back into the workplace. As this return to work begins, you might find some of your employees might be resistant to the idea of returning to the workplace. So, it’s vital to know where you stand as an employer if an employee is refusing to return.

First step, risk assess.

As a first step, you should carry out risk assessments for the workplace/job roles/ individuals (where appropriate, e.g., because the employee is pregnant or clinically vulnerable). You should then put into place all reasonable and necessary measures and confirm to the employees that the workplace has passed this COVID risk assessment. This will help reassure them that the workplace is safe. It is important to share your risk assessment and details of the measures you have implemented with them. Remember… it’s your responsibility as an employer to make sure that your workplace is COVID-compliant and stays that way. This will play a huge role in giving your people increased confidence that they’re returning to as safe an environment as possible. Plus, you could be liable for a fine of up to £10,000 if your workplace is found to be in breach of COVID-secure rules.


The key to approaching returning an employee to the workplace is communication – understanding their concerns and discussing the needs of the business whilst offering support where you can. Last summer the government called for employers to consult closely with their employees about returning to work and this will be equally important as we emerge from the current lockdown. If, despite the reassurances, you find the employee resisting the request to return to work, the next stage would be to have a conversation and find out exactly why they are opposing the request.

What if an employee prefers to work from home?

It may be that an employee simply prefers to work from home. They could even submit a formal flexible working request to work from home (as long as they have over six months’ service). Therefore, it’s worth clearly setting out from the beginning why you want them to return to the workplace so that they understand the business reasons for this. It may be because you think they can do their work more efficiently or effectively there. It’s worth considering the following:

  • Is this because of the limitations in doing the particular role at home or issues with their abilities/efforts?
  • If it’s about the role, are there any reasonable measures or amendments you could make so that they can do their job effectively at home?
  • If you feel it is because of the individual, have you addressed this with them.

It’s important to make sure you communicate clearly to the employee why you’re refusing the request, so they fully understand the business reasoning behind the refusal. If they then put in a formal flexible working request, you should make sure you deal with this properly using the correct procedures.

What if an employee has been shielding and is nervous to return?

As of 1 April, the government officially paused shielding, although clinically extremely vulnerable people are advised to continue to take extra precautions to protect themselves. Before asking a (previously) shielding employee to return to work, you should first carry out an individual risk assessment to make sure it’s safe for them to return. This is also necessary to help reassure them that their safety is a top priority. If it isn’t assessed as safe at this stage to ask them to return to the workplace, then you could potentially keep them on furlough or ask them to continue working from home. If you do assess the workplace as safe, then you should speak to the employee and demonstrate to them that you have introduced the necessary measures to keep them safe. You should ask them to outline exactly what they feel nervous about and how you have addressed these areas. If the workplace is safe and you do need them to return, then you may need to take formal steps to require them back to work. However, this would need delicate handling and individual advice about the particular case. Cluer HR could advise further.


This IOSH Approved Returning to Work course helps employees transition back to work in light of COVID-19; whether they have been working from home for an extended period or after being furloughed. It covers things that can be considered before returning, and it also looks at what you can expect on their first few days and weeks back at work. This course will take just 25 minutes to complete, and each user will be given a certificate upon course completion.

Course Returning to Work (during COVID-19) Training | iHASCO

If you have any queries, please contact us.


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