What happens when staff members don’t want to return from the office post lockdown?

October 19, 2020

As an employer you want to look after your people. You understand the value your employees bring to the business, especially in such challenging times. But what happens if staff don’t feel ready to return to the workplace? What options do you have when it comes to getting your business back to near-normal operation?

Firstly, it’s best to take any heat out of the situation. Yes, you are entitled to discipline an employee (perhaps even dismiss them) if they refuse to come to work; unauthorised absence is, after all, a breach of contract. But these aren’t normal times and, chances are, we’re not simply dealing with laziness or stubbornness.

Staff may genuinely feel that a return to work simply isn’t safe

If this is the case, then they are protected by Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act which protects workers who leave work or refuse to return because they believe that they could be in ‘serious or imminent danger’. The law is as yet unchallenged when it comes to deciding if COVID-19 poses such risk under Section 44, but it would be a brave employer who would argue that it didn’t!

What’s to be done if the usual channels of legal persuasion are not to be used?

The answer lies in encouragement.

It’s entirely understandable that people still feel vulnerable and afraid of catching the virus, perhaps believing that workplace safety is out of their control. But it needn’t be...

Risk Assessment reassurance

Since September more stringent rules have applied to the workplace as part of the government’s COVID-secure guidance. Even those businesses who carried out Coronavirus-focussed risk assessments earlier in the year now need to review and update, ensuring that preventative measures are still appropriate.

This provides an excellent opportunity to involve multi-departmental staff and get their input to new safety measures put in place. Such engagement will not only highlight any areas overlooked but it should also bridge any gaps in employee confidence.

Inclusive communication

When the ‘collaborative’ risk assessment is completed then positive, clear communication is a must. It should be shared with every single member of staff, reassuring them of the degree of importance placed on their safety at work but also ensuring that everyone is fully aware of their own risk-minimising responsibilities.

Investment in well-being

Much has been reported about the negative effect the pandemic has had on mental health. Lockdown affected people in so many different ways -bereavement, anxiety and isolation are just some of the things which your employees may have faced. There has therefore never been abetter time to think about employee well-being.


There are many ways to let your staff know that you value their on-going mental health. It may be as simple as having more flexible working arrangements, more frequent breaks or even just open-door access to management. You may however want to consider enlisting the help of trained professionals and offer an Employee Assistance Programme with 24/7 access to advice and counselling.

How can we help?

Regardless of the steps you take to encourage your employees back to the workplace, the key to successful re-introduction is understanding. It will achieve the fastest and best results –and may just save you from significant tribunal costs in the future.This is something that our team are able to help with!If you would like further advice and guidance from Employment Law experts, contact us here.

The information provided in all of our blogs reflects only a narrative of some elements to consider on the topic. The blogs do not contain considered legal advice and should not be relied upon as advice. Please see our website terms and conditions for full details of our disclaimer. If you are interested in obtaining advice, please contact one of our lawyers who will be happy and able to advise you on your own particular circumstances.