30 Aug 2023

What is a phased return to work?

Happy employees returning to work.

What is a Phased Return to Work?

A phased return to work is a structured approach that allows employees to gradually reintegrate into their roles over a set period. Instead of jumping straight back into their standard work schedule, employees might begin with reduced hours, modified duties, or alternative work settings. This transition is typically set out in a clear plan, tailored to the individual needs of the employee, ensuring they can return to full working capacity over time.

Why Consider a Phased Return to Work?

Several situations may warrant a phased return, such as:

Recovery from illness or surgery

After an extended medical leave, employees may need time to adjust to their previous workload.

Mental health concerns

For those who’ve experienced mental health issues, a gradual return can be less overwhelming and more manageable.

Parental leave

New parents may benefit from a staggered return, allowing them to find a balance between work and newfound responsibilities at home. Rather than instituting a general return to work policy in this case, encourage your employees to make use of their allocated KIT or SPLIT days. These are designed to give those on parental leave a phased return to work, should they want it.

Pandemic-induced remote working

After prolonged periods of remote work, employees might need an adjustment period to get used to the office environment once more.

A phased return is not merely a courtesy; it’s a strategic decision. Rushing an employee back can result in decreased productivity, mistakes, and in some cases, further absenteeism. A gradual return can help prevent these issues, ensuring the employee’s well-being while maintaining organisational efficiency.

How do employers make the most of a phased return to work policy?

For HR professionals, overseeing a phased return to work involves several key responsibilities:

Clear communication

Before initiating a phased return, HR should hold open conversations with the employee to understand their needs, apprehensions, and expectations. This dialogue should be ongoing throughout the process.

Creating a structured plan

Based on the employee’s unique situation, HR should help devise a return-to-work plan. This might involve reduced hours, modified tasks, or even remote work for a period.

Regular reviews

Check in regularly to gauge how the employee is coping. If they’re struggling, the plan may need adjustment.

Liaising with management

HR must ensure that managers are supportive and understand the terms of the phased return.

Benefits of a phased return to work

A well-managed phased return can offer numerous advantages

  • Employee wellbeing. A gradual return can reduce the risk of physical or mental strain, ensuring the employee feels supported and valued.
  • Retention. Demonstrating concern for employee well-being can enhance loyalty and job satisfaction, reducing the chances of staff turnover.
  • Productivity. Employees are more likely to perform better when they feel their personal needs are being considered and addressed.
  • Reputation. Organisations that prioritise the well-being of their staff are seen more favourably, both internally and externally.

Challenges of a phased return to work policy

Like any strategic decision, a phased return can present challenges

Resentment among staff

Other team members might feel they’re taking on extra work or that the returning employee is receiving preferential treatment.


Clear communication is key. Educate the team on the benefits of phased returns and ensure equitable distribution of duties.

Business needs vs. employee needs

There might be instances where business demands clash with the phased return plan.


While employee well-being is paramount, flexibility on both sides is crucial. Open dialogue can often lead to a middle ground that meets business needs while supporting the employee.