Managing a return to work following long-term absence

17 Jan
by Suzie Business Owner & Senior HRBP

There are a number of reasons employees may be away from the workplace for long periods of time, such as:-

  • Maternity leave
  • Parental leave
  • Long-term illness

Here is some advice on how to manage an employee’s return to work following such periods of absence.

Maternity Leave

As an employer you should have written to an employee prior to them going on maternity leave advising them of their expected return to work date according to statutory maternity leave laws. If an employee wishes to return early, they must inform their employer prior to doing so by giving at least 8 weeks’ notice, unless they are an Employee Shareholder, then a minimum of 16 weeks’ notice is required. If an employee fails to return to work on the date they have been advised, they will be classed as absent without leave.

Any employee returning to work after maternity leave is entitled to the same job on the same terms and conditions, unless this is not reasonably practicable, which is quite unusual, in which case you must offer the employee a similar alternative job on similar terms and conditions. The only exception to this is if the role has been redundant for legitimate reasons.

Should an employee wish to change their working hours upon their return to work from maternity leave, they need to submit a Flexible Working Request in writing, which needs to be formally acknowledged, and them being advised that their request could take up to 3 months to process. You, as the employer, have the right to reject this request but must have valid and reasonable reasons to do so in order to avoid any discrimination claim.

Should everything go according to plan and the employee returns to work without creating any issues, there are a number of ways in which you can assist them with their return, including:-

  • Advising of any changes in the organisation or its’ working practices since they went on leave (this can be done by KIT days, although the employee does not have to attend if they do not wish)
  • Ensure there is a private and appropriate space available should the employee need to express milk during their working shift
  • Ensure any risk assessments are complete prior to the employees’ return as required by law
  • Consider a workplace crèche be set up, should there be enough need and if there is not already one in place
  • Advise the employee with regards to childcare benefits (the Government’s Childcare Voucher Scheme was closed to new applicants in October 2018 with a Tax-Free Childcare Scheme now in operation)

Many of the above applies to Parental/Shared Parental Leave as well.

Long-term Sickness Absence

An employee could be absent from work on long-term sick leave due many reasons including injury, musculoskeletal disorders, serious illness, mental health and stress. Whilst the Bradford Factor can be used in the management of short-term absences caused by illness, you, as an employer, may wish to consider the circumstances surrounding a period of long-terms illness should this result in a high Bradford Factor score, before deciding to take any disciplinary action.

All employee absences over 7 days must be covered by a fit note obtained from a GP, which must be passed onto the employer.

Upon the employee’s return to work, the employer should:-

  • Conduct a return to work meeting with the employee to determine the reason for absence and to ensure that all relevant paperwork is in place
  • Determine whether there is an underlying cause for the employee’s absence that they have not yet disclosed
  • Consider a phased return to work period and agree a timescale with the employee
  • Inform the employee of any changes or working practices that have taken place within the organisation since they have been off sick

There has been a lot of emphasis placed on mental health in the workplace over the past couple of years or so. Should an employees’ long-term absence be related to this field, employers are advised to seek further advice on their return to work. Breathing Space HR Ltd are experts on this subject should you require it. Please contact our office on 0113 426 7735 or email

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