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Employee Support: How to Plan a Phased Return to Work (Post-Covid)

Pre-Covid, if you asked an employer for a common reason why a member of staff might take an extended period of leave, they would probably reply “maternity leave” or “sickness”.  

Now, as we all know well, the landscape has shifted. 

Many companies found that the existing policies they had in place weren’t able to accommodate the rapid and unprecedented changes they found themselves implementing remote working, furlough, and reduced hours, to name just a few.

On top of this, many of us have experienced overwhelming new levels of emotion, from the grief that follows losing a loved one (particularly if lockdown restrictions meant they couldn’t attend the funeral) to heightened anxiety about what our changed future might hold.

Even though the legal obligation for homeworking ended for most employees in July 2021, employers who order their staff back to the office as though nothing had happened are likely to meet with resistance – not to mention resignations.

A phased return to work, therefore, could now be a realistic option for almost every member of staff, not just those on maternity or extended sick leave.

What is a phased return to work?

Phasing an employee’s return to work simply means implementing clear steps towards their ‘normal’ full-time routine.

There is no official timeline for a phased return to work: it could last for two weeks, a month, six months, or anything in between.  

What happens during a phased return to work?

During their phased return, employees are often given lighter duties than normal, or work reduced hours, which gradually increase over an agreed period of time.

In some cases, the employee’s doctor or health professional may make specific recommendations about the right steps to take.

It’s a good idea to nominate a specific person, i.e. a line manager, or a member of the HR team, who will keep in contact with the employee during their phased return – not just about workplace matters, but to ‘check in’ with how they are feeling.

During a phased return, emphasis should be firmly on ensuring the whole workforce feels safe and supported; not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.

What other factors must be considered when planning a phased return?

Patience, and a willingness to listen to individual concerns, will go a long way towards a successful phased return.

Bear in mind that the past 18 months have been vastly different for everybody.  Spending a long period of time away from the physical workplace can also compound existing feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, leading to a loss of confidence for many.

This means a phased plan that works well for one employee may not work for another, and you may also need to revise existing plans.  Scheduling review dates in advance will help employees feel reassured that if something isn’t working out, they will have the chance to discuss and change it.

Above all else, remember that returning to the physical workplace represents a huge change that, for some employees, will provoke feelings of fear and anxiety.  However, you choose to plan your phased return to work process, your job as an employer is to make everybody feel safe, respected, and heard.

We at Beyond EAP have produced a range of supportive materials to help employers and employees adjust to our new normal.  Download our eBooks on Returning to Work here.

If you would like to learn more about our specialist, personally tailored programme of return to work support, please contact us for a confidential chat.


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