Phased return to work

If you have been sick and off work for a long period, returning can be a daunting prospect – perhaps because your recovery has been slow, or you have lost a degree of confidence.

The fit note, which succeeded the sick note in 2010, is designed to highlight what a person can do, rather than what they cannot. The 'Fit for Work' initiative, funded by the UK government, says the rationale for the fit note is that individuals do not always need to be completely recovered to return to work, and that doing so can often help their recovery (Phased return to work after sickness absence).

Your doctor might use a fit note to recommend adjustments that could help you return sooner. Those recommendations could include a phased return to work, starting with temporarily reduced hours and working your way towards your normal hours. You might start by working only a few hours a week. You should agree a plan with your employer and arrange for regular reviews.

Fit for Work argues that both sides benefit:

  • Your employer benefits from your skills and experience.
  • You may benefit financially and emotionally from being back at work.

When you agree a phased return with your employer, make sure they remember:

  • This will involve extra admin and meetings, which might put more pressure on your line manager. The phased return plan needs to take account of relevant legislation, for example health and safety requirements.
  • Your recovery may be slower than expected, which might affect the pace of your return.
  • Some jobs lend themselves more easily to a phased return to work.
  • To be aware of occupational health issues, and that the plan may require them to discuss potentially difficult topics with you, relating to your mental or physical health.

In any discussions with your employer, make sure you remember:

  • If the process is not properly managed, you may feel pressurised into agreeing a plan you do not believe is realistic. This may prolong your recovery.
  • The plan may need to change if you do not recover as quickly as expected.

If you agree to a phased return, you will lose pay unless your employer agrees to provide sick pay for the hours you are not yet fit enough to work.

The UK government's Department for Work and Pensions 'Fit Note Guidance' tells employers only that they 'may decide to pay sick pay for the hours not worked, or to pay full pay despite the reduced hours' (Law at Work 2020, p 297). There is no obligation. In workplaces where the NUJ is recognised, there is often an agreement in place for the employer to provide financial support during a phased return to work.

The Fit Note Guidance also has a useful glossary of support organisations for people returning to work (The fit note: A guide for patients and employees, p 11).

Keeping in contact with work while you are off sick

Fit for Work emphasises that, in order to keep good relations with your employer, it is important for you to 'communicate openly with managers about health issues, treatment, recovery and ambitions for returning to work'. The rules around keeping in touch with your employer may be in their sickness absence policy, if they have one.

ACAS recommends that, when deciding what contact there should be, you and your employer should agree:

  • How often contact should take place.
  • How contact will be made – by email, phone or in person.
  • Your point of contact. That might be your line manager, another manager or an HR manager.

Your NUJ rep could help you decide with your employer how best to make contact. Your employer should not appear or telephone unexpectedly or too often.

Contact sessions are a good opportunity for you to inform your employer about your wellbeing. You can also discuss any support you feel you need, and talk about any relevant updates or changes at work.