The HR guide to a phased return to work for employees

A quick summary:

  1. What is a phased return to work?
  2. When is it necessary?
  3. How long is a phased return to work?
  4. Do I get full pay on phased return to work?
  5. The benefits of a phased return to work
  6. Our final conclusion

A sudden return to work can leave employees feeling overwhelmed, anxious and even unhappy. The solution? A ‘phased return to work’. This allows employees to adjust gradually to working life once again.

Whether it’s sabbatical leave or for personal reasons, we sometimes have to step back from our careers and duties. But these prolonged periods of absence can leave us in a predicament.

We’re anxious, unprepared and riddled with self-doubted. Can we return to our jobs with the same level of enthusiasm, energy and motivation? Are we skilled enough and liked enough by our peers?

Employees shouldn’t feel suffocated by these internal questions. And that’s where a phased return to work can help. By staggering an employer’s duties, you can reduce their anxiety, minimise stress and improve their wellbeing.

This just scratches the surface of possibilities. But that’s exactly what we’re exploring in more detail in this guide to a phased return to work for team members.

We’ll kick things off by asking the question, what is a phased return to work? Then, we’ll answer some common questions before diving into the benefits for both employees and employers.

After finishing this guide, you’ll have a much stronger grasp of navigating a phased return to work for employees. Let’s begin!

A woman laying in bed unhappy
What is a phased return to work?

What is a phased return to work?

A phased return to work refers to the gradual reintroduction of tasks and responsibilities for an employee by an employer. A phased return to work avoids overwhelming employees or exhausting them emotionally, mentally and physically.

By gently bringing employees back through a phased return to work, leaders can ensure employees are productive, stable and fulfilled with their jobs. In fact, this approach is much about supporting employees as it is about the business.

Believe it or not, there are various benefits of a phased return to work. Something we’ll explore in further detail later on. For now, let’s focus on what it means and why it’s important.

So to summarise the question, “what is a phased return to work?”, it’s a phrase for reinstating an employee within the company. But doing so in a way that doesn’t throw them in the deep end.

Similar read: Identifying leavism in your team

When is a phased return to work necessary?

Now that we understand what a phased return to work is, when is it necessary? For most employees, this will be in relation to a period of illness or serious injury.

For example, if one of your team members breaks their leg, they cannot physically lift objects within a warehouse. This would require a prolonged period of absence, with an eventual phased return to work.

You may utilise a phased return to work for employees who are dealing with certain things in life, such as the passing of a loved one. This helps employees readjust to life without a loved one and is very supportive of their mental health and wellbeing.

Ultimately, a phased return to work is decided at the discretion of an employer. If they think certain circumstances are deserving of a phased return to work, it should be considered.

Similar read: Demystifying absenteeism and presenteeism

A man sitting up in bed in pain
How long should a phased return to work last?

How long is a phased return to work

Generally speaking, a phased return to work lasts anywhere between a couple of weeks and several months. It’s decided at the discretion of management and on a case-by-case basis. It will vary depending on the number of hours employees work, the seniority of their role and their personal circumstances.

Without taking these points into consideration, employers shouldn’t make any set decision on the length of a phased return to work. When it comes to certain reasons for a phased return to work, such as the examples we gave above, this will determine when an employee can join back full-time.

If there are sick notes involved, this may give managers an idea of how long employees may be out of work before they can slowly return.

Here are our top tips for determining how long a phased return to work should last:

  • Understand individual employee concerns about returning to work
  • Get an expert opinion from a GP or wellbeing consultant
  • Ask employees about their expectations for when to return
  • Set agreed timescales with employees, but leave them open to change

These points can help you better understand when your employee can appropriately return to the workplace. All in all, there’s no definitive answer. It’s about working with employees during a phased return to work plan. Understand their needs and their expectations, then go from there.

Do I get full pay on phased return to work?

When it comes to a phased return to work, employers aren’t required to offer ‘full pay’. Like most answers here, this is at the discretion of an employer and their phased return to work policy. However, employees may be able to increase their income during this period by leveraging their annual leave or through statutory sick pay.

It’s details like this that managers should discuss openly with employees from time to time. After all, should staff members ever require several weeks or months off work, they may find themselves struggling due to the lack of support — despite this being outlined in contracts and company policies.

As an HR professional or people manager, you can assume that fair phased return to work policies are much more attractive for hiring and retaining great talent. Life comes at us fast, and sometimes we need the support of our employers to get us through obstacles.

To summarise, there are three options employees should explore to support them financially during a period of prolonged leave:

  • Statutory sick pay / occupational pay
  • Annual leave hours
  • Negotiate with managers around pay entitlement

There’s no guarantee a manager will agree to pay an employee’s full wage. But it does express a sense of compassion, care and supportiveness from an employer. And that goes further than a lot of initiatives in the workplace.

Three employees collaborating at work
The benefits of a phased return to work

The benefits of a phased return to work

In this section, we’re examining the benefits of a phased return to work for both employees and employers. Before revisiting your current policy, it’s worth reading through these points below.

Employee advantages

First and foremost, a phased return to work plan should support employees. So it’s important to consider their needs and why staggering their return can help.

We will first address the benefits for employees, talking about financial wellbeing, returning to normality and routine and the social aspect.

Better financial wellbeing

Let’s start with financial wellbeing. Unlike total absence, a phased return to work helps employees regain control over their finances — or at least to a degree.

Although we’ve discussed issues around pay during a phased return to work, it’s a much better solution than simply being absent without pay for long periods of time.

This kind of scenario can leave some employees struggling to balance personal finances. And if there’s one thing debt and money woes can hinder, it’s health and happiness.

By slowly introducing employees into the workplace through several hours of weekly work, they can start to recover financially. We recommend working with your team members to understand what they feel comfortable doing.

You may find that they’re eager to return and can take on bigger projects and responsibilities and increase their hours quicker.

Helping employees reach a normal routine

Next up, a phased return to work helps employees return to a normal routine. As you may know, people are creatures of habit and routine. When we are plucked from these, we can feel kind of lost.

Offering a phased return to work for employees means they can regain their routine once again. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel unable to contribute or work towards a goal?

It’s also worth remembering that without pay, there’s like parts of an employee’s lifestyle or routine that they aren’t able to enjoy anymore. A lack of work can hinder different areas of our lives.

Introduce a phased return to work and provide employees with a sense of control over their routine and lifestyle!

A manager working with two employees
A phased return to work can support happier employees

Create socially happier employees

Finally, by gradually bringing employees back into the workplace, you’re improving their social wellbeing. Now, whilst many leaders overlook social wellbeing, it is super important!

The role of social wellbeing creates a more inclusive workforce and a higher sense of togetherness. For many of us, we build strong relationships with our colleagues, which makes sense, given how long we spend with one another.

Spending too much time alone, especially during some form of recovery, perhaps from an illness or injury can be extremely difficult. And in an ever-shifting world of work, most notably with remote and hybrid teams, loneliness has become a serious issue.

According to a Forbes article, 72% of global employees stated experiencing loneliness monthly. This highlights exactly why initiatives like a phased return to work are crucial.

To address issues of loneliness and isolation, leaders should speak openly and regularly with absent employees. Ask them questions about their social wellbeing and how they feel being away from the workplace.

Employer advantages

Now we’ve discussed the benefits of a phased return to work, let’s analyse how employers can reap the rewards of support teams during times of staggered returns. You’ll find that by helping employees, you’re actually helping your business!

Compassion translates into highly engaged and happy employees

Firstly, offering a phased return to work is a sign of compassion from leaders. It demonstrates that employees are supported and cared for. Some companies won’t offer a phased return to work, forcing employees, regardless of their circumstances, to return immediately.

Of course, there’s nothing staff members can do about this. But it doesn’t put employees first and consider their concerns, anxieties and so on. Employees who feel valued by a manager are obviously more engaged and content with their jobs.

By checking in regularly with employees during their absence and ensuring they aren’t jumping back to work too fast, you are improving the employee experience. Most team members will respect this approach.

Start introducing a phased return to work plan for better relationships with your workforce; for increased output, performance and engagement.

Two employees looking at a computer
Save money for your company by bringing employees back

Save cash for your business with a phased return to work

Next up, your company’s finances! Believe it or not, you might be able to save money by introducing a phased return to work plan for employees.

That’s because when employees are absent, it’s not just a loss of productivity, but the high fees of temporary staff, training hours and any overtime to cover the lack of an employee.

Remember, costs add up, and rather than having to explore expensive avenues to temporarily replace an employee, a phased return to work can be the answer.

Start by assessing all the costs of this temporary replacement, and then decide on fair compensation for an employee who is gradually returning to their job. You might find that a full salary for a phased return to work is cheaper than a temporary replacement.

A lack of nurturing employees could lead to a loss of talent

Finally, as employees spend longer and longer out of work, the chances of them returning diminish. This means you run the risk of completely losing talent — and after a period of unfulfilled duties, you will need to hire and train a new employee.

This inevitably leads to high expenses. In fact, according to CentricHR, the average cost of replacing a member of staff can be between six and nine months of salary. But what else happens during an employee's absence and once they leave:

  • Temporary staff must be brought in
  • Training must be provided to a temporary or permanent replacement
  • Other employees must pick up duties and responsibilities
  • There’s a lack of output and productivity
  • There’s a skills shortage for that role
  • Employers must rehire for that role should they leave

Of course, this isn’t everything. But these are some of the consequences of losing talent and disregarding a phased return to work.

What’s more, we found that as low as one in five will return to work if they are absent for four weeks or more. Even more frightening, it’s said that employees are more likely to pass away than return to work after a two-year period of absence.

Ultimately, the odds are very against you and your business. This is exactly why introducing a phased return to work plan can help retain talented team members. Don’t lose out on talent by neglecting them during long periods of absence.

Find ways to support them from a distance. Listen to their needs and reassure them that they are still in fact part of the team. Keeping up with communication and slowly reintroducing them to their jobs is key to your retention efforts.

A somewhat empty working space
Our final thoughts on a phased return to work for employees

Final considerations for a phased return to work

Having now explored the various benefits for both yourself and your team, along with other considerations, you should be in a better position to support employees.

A phased return to work is a great way to help people resettle, avoid losing them totally and prevent extortionate costs to your business. It contributes to better health and wellbeing of your workforce too.

As we’ve discovered, it isn’t a one-way street. It’s an all-around beneficial opportunity. Leaders should really grasp the reasons for team absences before deciding how to navigate a phased return to work.

The past few years have been nothing but challenging. Demand for emotional and mental support has skyrocketed in the workplace, and the stigmas that surround these conversations have slipped away.

If employers want to match the trends in workplace wellbeing, they must invest in initiatives and ways of working that are genuine and supportive — things like Wellbeing Wednesday that allow employees to focus on themselves. The choice is endless, and leaders must think outside the box.

As the number of lost working days climbs, and employees battle with poor emotional and mental health, more must be done both in and outside the workplace. A phased return to work makes it easier for your team to step back into their role, regardless of what they are dealing with in life.

How are you supporting employees? What initiatives have your HR department deployed in the past couple of years to create healthier, happier teams?

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