What is a phased return to work?

If you’ve been off work for weeks or months because of ill health or an injury, you may be offered a ‘phased return to work’. This article explains what a phased return to work involves, and the things you might need to consider.

Coffee cup in front of a computer with welcome back written on a post it note


What is a phased return to work and what’s involved?

A phased return to work is where an employee returns to their job in a gradual way following illness or injury. It might mean working a reduced number of hours at first, which gradually increases in line with your recovery until you return to your normal working pattern. Sometimes this is called a staggered return to work.

Usually a phased return is based on the recommendation of an occupational health specialist or a GP. Each ‘phase’ will depend on the type of illness or injury, what is possible for the employee, the speed of recovery and the type of work the person does.

The approach is agreed in advance by the employer and the employee at the outset, but can be reviewed at any point.

When are phased returns to work most commonly used?

Phased returns can apply to many situations, including long term illness such as cancer or a stroke, mental illness, serious injury or bereavement. They usually apply where it’s likely that the person may not be well enough to return to full time work but is capable of some duties.

There is currently some discussion about whether people that are recovering from coronavirus will have a phased return to work. This largely depends on how severe the case was and how long full recovery is likely to take. This coronavirus return to work guide from the CIPD explains further.

Can I request a phased return to work?

Employers aren’t obliged to offer phased returns, but they are increasingly seen as good practice. If you have good reason to request a phased return to work – and especially if it might mean you can return at an earlier point in your recovery than was originally expected – it’s well worth discussing with your employer.

What’s the process for arranging a phased return to work?

A phased return to work might be initiated by your GP, who ticks a box on the ‘fit note.’ Or, your employer’s occupational health provider (OHP) might produce a medical report about you that recommends a phased return.

In both cases, you should discuss the phased return with your employer. Once agreed, the details are put in writing about how your return to work will be managed.

How long does a phased return to work usually take?

A phased return to work often takes place over around four weeks, but can continue for longer depending on the conclusions of the medical report. If you think you will need a longer phased return than your employer has suggested, speak to your GP and the occupational health provider if possible. If they agree, they can then make more detailed recommendations about the length of the phased return to work.

Will I return to my old job during the phased return?

It depends on the nature of your work. Some people return to their normal job at reduced hours, while others with a demanding job might be given lighter duties during the phased return.

Can I get special equipment to help me?

If any employee has a disability, by law their employer must consider making ‘reasonable adjustments’ if needed to help them return to work.

Reasonable adjustments could include making changes to your workstation or working equipment, your working hours, your duties or tasks.

This can help get people back to work more quickly and prevent any further problems.

To agree the best course of action, explain your requirements to your employer, and they should take advice from your doctor and their occupational health adviser.

What will I be paid during the period of my phased return to work?

The normal approach, as endorsed by HMRC, is to pay the employee for the hours worked, plus any remaining entitlements to sick pay.

Some employers, however, will pay your full-time salary for a limited period, such as four weeks. This approach helps to encourage people back to work rather than remain on sick pay.

It is important to gain clarification on this at the time of agreeing your phased return.

Can I use my holiday entitlement to top up my salary during a phased return to work?

Yes. Workers on sick leave continue to accrue annual leave and can usually carry it over to the next leave year if not taken. You can therefore ask to use your statutory holiday entitlement to supplement your pay, if it’s less than your full salary.

Do bear in mind that in some settings, such as schools, your employer may disallow this as accrued holiday should not be used during term time.

What if I don’t want this – do I have to agree to a phased return to work?

If you would prefer not to have a phased return, your employer cannot impose one. The terms of your return are subject to your agreement and any change to your employment contract must be made in writing.

Can I see the occupational health report before it is sent to my employer?

Yes – you have the right to view medical reports about you under the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988. You can request to see the report either before or after it is sent and you can add your own comments if required. You can even withdraw your consent to the report being released, but do seek legal advice before taking this step.

What happens if my GP and the employer’s occupational health provider disagree on whether I am fit for work?

In this situation your employer can choose which advice to rely on, but it may not be in your best interests. An example is where the advice suggests that you are not fit to work and may not be for some time, and you are therefore dismissed on the grounds of ill health.

As long as returning to work doesn’t slow your recovery or risk your health and safety, it’s worth showing a willingness to return to work, on reduced hours if necessary.

Phased return to work plan example

You can find examples of phased return to work plans online, but in general the plan should confirm the following details:

  1. Timing – the length of the phased return with start and end dates
  2. Stated medical advice – recommendations from the GP, consultant, workplace health & wellbeing, health & safety, etc.
  3. Details of the phased return – hours to be worked/duties to be performed etc. Details of expected goals and objectives as required.
  4. Reasonable adjustments required – details of new allowances or equipment that will be introduced to support the employee.
  5. Review process – how the return to work will be reviewed and how often.
  6. Contractual changes – To confirm any changes to the employee’s terms and conditions.
  7. Additional sources of advice/support for the employee – e.g. counselling, staff helpline etc.

The plan should be shared with the employee and their manager, as well as any other important stakeholders.

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