Employee reluctance to return to the workplace

Have you experienced employee reluctance to return to the workplace as a degree of normality returns? It’s been an emotional rollercoaster since the Covid-19 pandemic started. And while a lot of people are very happy and relieved about the increasing freedoms we’ve had over the past few months, not everyone is rushing out and about once more to socialise. They’re uncomfortable and anxious about the prospect. And for quite a few of them, that sense of unease and the general fear of being inside buildings and around other people extends into the workplace, making them very reluctant to return.

Employee reluctance to return to the workplace

There might be other reasons why people aren’t keen to go back too. Some employees might feel they’ve actually been more productive while working remotely. Others might have found it helped them strike a better balance between their working life and personal commitments. Some might have valued the fact that they no longer had to deal with lengthy commutes or depend on public transport.

Given that there will be different reasons for employee reluctance to return to the workplace, what can you do as an employer to make sure you’re reacting in an appropriate way?

Talk to your employee

The very first thing to do is to challenge yourself whether you really do need the employee to be physically present in the workplace. While the risk from Covid has been reduced thanks to the vaccines, it certainly hasn’t gone away.

If you still believe you really do need them to come back in, you must then talk to the employee. Employee reluctance to return to the workplace could be caused by many reasons. As an employer, your role is to try to establish what they are. The fear might not only be connected to the employee’s own health, but also to worries about what they might take back to more vulnerable members of their household. The reluctance might not even be directly connected to the virus and is instead more about a desire to permanently change their working pattern.

Be open-minded as it might turn out that an employee has reasonable grounds for not wanting to go into the workplace. That means if you decide to go down a disciplinary route to try to force them to come in, it could potentially be unfair. Particular care must be taken if the employee has an elevated level of risk from Covid-19; they might be categorised as clinically vulnerable, have a disability, or be pregnant. Remember that the requirement for reasonable adjustments where appropriate still remains in place and you will need to do specific risk assessments to enable someone to return safely (and which may in fact result in the conclusion that you should continue to allow them to work from home).

Explain your health and safety measures

If you believe that your request for the employee to return is justifiable, and they don’t have reasonable grounds to stay working from home, you must still handle the situation sensitively. Don’t forget that as their employer, you have a legal duty to take care of their health and safety. And a heavy-handed approach is going to damage your relationship with them too.

Explain all the measures that have been put in place to keep employees safe, based on government guidance and the risk assessments that have been completed. And make sure they know who to talk to if on their return the actions of others are causing them any safety worries. It would be reasonable for an employee to refuse to return (or remain) in the workplace if there were justifiable health and safety concerns.

Make allowances for long Covid sufferers

It might turn out that the employee is struggling with continuing symptoms of long Covid. If they’re too unwell to work at all, then this should be addressed through your absence management procedures.  You’ll find some more advice from ACAS here about long Covid.

But if an employee is recovering and has already been doing some work from home, be conscious that the prospect of making the physical journey in and spending time in the workplace may be too much for them if they are still struggling with tiredness and exhaustion. Deal with this sensitively and be patient. For some people, long Covid has seriously curtailed what they are capable of doing in many aspects of their life. Employers should be sympathetic to that, be realistic about what constitutes a manageable workload and appreciate that a return to the workplace might not be achievable in the short term.

Is greater flexibility an option to handle employee reluctance to return to the workplace?

Don’t forget that as things stand employees who have been with you for 26 weeks or more have the statutory right to make a request to work flexibly and have that request properly and fully considered by you. An open and constructive dialogue could help you both find a way forward where they can request a remote working arrangement that might be permanent, but alternatively might operate over the next few months with an agreed review period in place.

Even if you must have an employee come into the workplace, there are other forms of flexibility that could help too. Can employees who rely on public transport flex their hours so they can travel at less crowded times perhaps? Or could a hybrid arrangement be a possibility, enabling people to come into the workplace but for shorter amounts of time?

What should you do if you’ve explored all avenues and the employee still refuses?

If you’ve put in appropriate measures and taken the employee’s individual circumstances into account and they still refuse to come in then you do have other options. They include offering a period of unpaid leave and even going down the disciplinary route. If you are contemplating disciplinary action though, proceed with caution and seek expert guidance, as it could be a minefield and pave the way for tribunal claims.

  • Start with the employee contract – what does it say about the place of work? If it is the workplace, this is a good starting point for an employer to seek to enforce this, however, an employee is also in a strong place given they will have worked from home for the best part of 12-18 months.
  • Communicate now if you haven’t already about the requirement for an employee to return to the workplace. Be reasonable in your handling of it, don’t just tell an employee on a Friday that they are due back to the workplace on the Monday.
  • Ensure any contractual changes are mutually agreed and written confirmation is provided within 30 days of the change.
  • Employers ensure you include flexibility in any contractual change – who knows what may happen in the future.
  • Occupational health assessments may be required for some employees before a return to work can be facilitated in a safe manner.

Contact us if you need advice about bringing people back to your workplace

People will have been affected differently by the pandemic and they will have reacted differently too. There’s a balancing act needed here and it won’t always be straightforward to achieve: flexibility and sensitivity to individual circumstances are important but so is some degree of consistency for people in similar circumstances. If you are not sure about the most appropriate way to handle the situation don’t forget that you can contact us for some one-off advice about what to do – you’ll find more information about all of our services here.



Business efficiency, Employment Contract, Health & Safety

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