What do you do if an employee is too scared to return to work?

13 May
by Suzie Business Owner & Senior HRBP

Clients are already experiencing employees who are reluctant to return to work due to fear.

How can we support an employee to return to their job?

Firstly, the organisation needs to ensure that they have made all adjustments to the workplace under the Government guidelines for their industry. Until this is done, you should not be requiring people to return.
If an employee refuses to return, it is important that you do not judge that person for their feelings, however you do need to explore their reasons for feeling the way that they do.

Ask questions around:

  • What are their key concerns about returning?
  • Do they know what new rules and adjustments you have put in place to keep them save?
  • Is travelling to work a concern?
  • Are there any outside pressures/family issues they are experiencing which are concerning them about returning?

It is important for the future engagement of your employees that you handle these cases sensitively as how you deal with the individual will reflect on your organisation’s cultural attitude to employee engagement.
Also refer the employee to any Employee Assistant programmes where they can confidentiality discuss their fears and concerns.

We know that people are seeking out medical certificates from their GP’s to allow them to stay away from work. You may see people signed off with stress or work-related stress In these cases, you will need to make sure your absence management procedures are robust and fair. My opinion on dealing with absence is to ensure that your current measures and procedures are followed.

Legal position
Employers have an obligation to ensure the safety of their employees at work but as Paul Kelly from Blacks Solicitors explains:
“The legal position is not that simple as employees can refuse to return to the workplace if they reasonably believe that their health and safety would be in danger if they were to do so.
This means that employers who seek to force employees to return to their place of work without taking appropriate steps to mitigate the risks presented by Covid-19 will very likely fall foul of sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 if they subsequently subject their employee to a detriment (or even dismiss them) as a result of a refusal.
Whether an employee’s refusal to return to work as a result of perceived health and safety concerns was reasonable or not is a subjective test. The employee needs to show that he or she believed there was serious and imminent danger based on the information available to them at the time.”

Disciplinary action?
If your organisation has done everything they are required to under Health and Safety regulations and Covid-19 guidance, the employee is not signed off sick and is still refusing to return, it may be the case that the disciplinary process may be needed. Remember you don’t have to apply a disciplinary process for employees under 2 years service.

The employee may also raise a formal grievance regarding the requirement to return, if you receive a complaint in writing then it is wise to implement the grievance procedure to ensure that you have a good process and evidence trail on dealing with the complaint.

Free Return to Work Pack
To help you with returning employees we have created a free “return to work” pack which includes checklists for managers, 121 forms for manager/employees and a template letter to officially return the employee from furlough. You can receive this free pack by emailing us at

Book a free consultation