“Help! My employee refuses to return to work—what can I do?”

Not sure how to handle a reluctant employee? Don’t worry, we’ve got the answers…

Thursday, Nov 11, 2021
3 min read

Employees have recently started to return to the office on a phased and staggered basis for specific business requirements. While this marks another positive step forward for society as a whole, many employers are having to deal with a difficult issue: their employees refusing to return to work.

Before going down any disciplinary route, it’s important to note that the Government has advised that employees should continue to work from home where possible. This advice is included in the updated Work Safely Protocol.

Still, what rights do you have if an employee refuses to return to work? Can employees be disciplined for staying at home? And how can they be encouraged to return to work?

Let’s find out…

What can you do as an employer?

If an employee refuses to return to work without reason, it could be classed as an unauthorised absence. Unauthorised absences are a little more blurred in the current circumstances though, as an employee may be genuinely worried about returning to the office.

When dealing with an unauthorised absence, it’s best to inform the employee that they need to return to work and warn them that if they fail to, it may lead to formal disciplinary action.

If the employee continues to refuse to return or fails to engage, it may lead to dismissal with notice. Here, however, you must remember that any employee with at least 12 months’ service before their dismissal will have the option of bringing an Unfair Dismissal claim before the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

If the employee is able to carry out their work from home, it may be best to consider making the arrangement permanent. Or at least extending it for a period.

This is a safer bet, especially if the employee has remained productive while working remotely. But before making such a decision, you should consult with the employee about their circumstances. They might need extra time to get childcare arranged, or they might be looking after an elderly person.

You can also turn to your employment contracts in this situation. Employees have a duty to perform their job and there may even be implied terms (unwritten) that you can rely on.

Another thing you can do is encourage your absent employee to return to work. Let’s look at how you can do that…

Involve employees in your health and safety assessment

All businesses, in all sectors, must follow the Work Safely Protocol when welcoming employees back to the workplace.

Carrying out a risk assessment is one effective assessment you can do to show your staff that you’re doing your best to protect everyone’s health.

Be mindful to include coronavirus risks and hazards. Assess how the virus might spread and establish processes for eliminating or controlling the risk.

When conducting your risk assessment, involve staff in the process. Ask them if there are any specific safety steps they’d like you to take. For instance, some employees might feel safer working staggered shifts to avoid cramming onto public transport at rush hour. Staggered breaks would also free up communal spaces.

Involving employees in your risk assessments helps to show them that you’re taking their concerns seriously. Not only that, but it also gives them more control over the environment they work in.

Share your safety measures with staff

Conducting a risk assessment is a great start. Now it’s time to share it with your staff.

You can do this by sharing a paper copy of the assessment with those who are present in the workplace.

For those who are working from home, you could send a short video of the workplace and a digital copy of the risk assessment. Doing so reassures them that the workplace is safe.

Want a quicker, easier way of carrying out risk assessments? Check out BrightSafe’s health & safety software.

Support your staff’s mental wellbeing

As employees begin to return to work, it’s more important than ever that you support their mental health needs.

It’s understandable that your staff might feel anxious about returning to the workplace. So, it’s up to you to make them feel as safe as possible about coming back.

However, not all of your staff will feel comfortable opening up to you. That’s why you should consider an Employee Assistance Programme like Bright Wellbeing & Counselling.

It’s a confidential counselling service where your staff can get compassionate mental health support over the phone or through face-to-face counselling sessions.

To learn more about Bright Wellbeing & Counselling and how it helps you have a happier, healthier workforce, book your free demo today.


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