What Happens if an Employee Refuses to Return to Work Post-Covid?


The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and ever-changing safety restrictions around it has seen more businesses than ever enforce remote working, furlough employees and give breaks to those unable to make it into their usual work environment. Now that the end of the ‘new normal’ is in sight with the mass vaccine rollout, companies are facing the issue of employees not wanting to return. But how can this be dealt with if the issue arises? Let’s look into the possibilities…


Can employees refuse to return to work?

Technically, yes, of course, anyone can simply refuse to turn up to work; but in the case of Covid-19, things are a little trickier. Employers still have a duty of care to employees, so in the current climate, this includes completing a risk assessment and having taken reasonable steps to prevent harm. All current government guidelines must be adhered to, and, until lockdown periods end, all employees should be encouraged to work remotely if possible. In the case of coronavirus, the steps to ‘prevent harm’ should lower the risk of contamination between employees as much as reasonably possible.


If employees feel that adequate safety precautions are not being taken, they are within their rights to refuse to return to the usual working site and to take further legal action against their employer; particularly if they have a medical condition or disability that may put them at disproportionate risk.


In these cases, it is key that employers do all they can to facilitate the safe return of the employee – including offering alternate job roles, offering other remote working options, or extending furlough.


If employees refuse to return to work, what can be done?

If an employee refuses to return to work, the case must be analysed on its merits. The employer must move to accommodate their needs as possible under the Employment Rights Act, and in some circumstances, the Equality Act. If all reasonable adjustments have been made and the employee continues to refuse to return, their absence may be listed as unauthorised.


The ongoing pandemic is certainly an extreme circumstance and so disciplinary and dismissal proceedings should be considered as a very last resort. In the case of those classified as clinically vulnerable, or living with someone classified as clinically vulnerable, returning to work may present a ‘serious and imminent danger’ in the workplace, and so it would be unfair to put them through such processes.


How is best to encourage employees to return to work?

Stay open, honest, and upfront. Very few people feel safe everywhere they go at the moment, and this will be reflected in all workforces. When planning for workplace returns, consult with employees, trade unions and any relevant trade bodies to discuss not only best practice but also people’s opinions and ideas. Engaging with employees as early as possible in the planning process will encourage involvement and help them feel empowered as part of the onward business development.


Every employee is an individual person with differing personal circumstances, thoughts, and feelings, and this should be taken into account with return-to-work planning. If you have a specific HR case that needs further investigation and advice, please contact us on 01327 640070 or email hello@reboxhr.co.uk for expert HR support.

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