Freedom Day 2021: What if an employee doesn’t want to return to the workplace?

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Jane Grundy, HR Technical Consultant, AdviserPlus

14th July 2021

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Following confirmation that England’s COVID-19 restrictions will be relaxed on July 19, the advice from Government is for employers to set out plans for a gradual return to the workplace.

But with so much debate around the easing of the restrictions and many people still feeling anxious about the situation, where do you stand if you have an employee who doesn’t want to return to the workplace?

HR Technical Consultant at AdviserPlus, Jane Grundy, considers some of the reasons why an employee may be unwilling to return to the workplace and ways in which you can support them.

Find out how people are feeling

People may have been away from the workplace for quite some time and could be feeling anxious about what the new workplace will look like compared to pre-COVID times. As a manager, you should try and find out what is causing the colleague to feel anxious.

Is it work-related or are there any other factors? Can adjustments be made on a short-term basis to make them feel more comfortable? For example:

  • If the commute to and from work is causing anxiety, you could consider adjusting the start and finish times so that peak travel times are avoided.
  • Consider a taster day – this will provide an opportunity to (re)familiarise employees with the commute, office layout, meet colleagues and see how the arrangements will work in practice ahead of their return.
  • Arrange to meet them outside, or for them to have a buddy to walk in with and sit near.
  • Agree a hybrid arrangement, with a mix of working from home and the office. This could be a on a trial basis with a review at the end to reach agreement on a more permanent arrangement, taking into consideration the success of the trial and any challenges that may have arisen.

Ensure you discuss the positives of a return to the workplace such as interaction with others or a change in environment and routine. If the anxiety is a result of workplace conflict, you could of course, try mediation.

COVID-19 related

If the unwillingness to return to the office is COVID-19 related, seek to understand what the exact concerns are. Discuss the measures that your business has put in place to make the workplace safe and explain the mechanisms that are available for raising concerns if they feel as though these are insufficient.


If the employee is reluctant to return to the workplace due to a medical condition, seek to understand if this is a pre-existing condition or a new one. If it’s pre-existing, revisit the measures that were in place before the pandemic and consider what may have changed.

If the medical condition is new, try to understand the full details – Is it a temporary situation? What treatment is being received, and what adjustments do they feel are needed? For further advice, you should engage with Occupational Health or write to the employee’s GP for advice on how you can support them at work.

Personal preference

Many people have found remote working to be a positive experience and some may just not want to return to an office or workplace. If this is the case, consider whether it’s mandatory for the employee to work from a workplace? Can they do the job as effectively from home? If not, explain the reasons why and the impact that this may have on them, their work or colleagues if they don’t return. Discuss the challenges that the business faced during the pandemic and how being in the workplace will overcome those.

For some, whose financial situation has changed during the pandemic, an additional cause of stress could be the cost of commuting to a workplace. You should explore this and discuss hybrid working possibilities, and any benefit schemes that your business offers such as a Cycle to Work Scheme, or season ticket payment options for public transport.

Ultimately, if it is a requirement to return to the workplace and an employee refuses to do so, you should consider taking disciplinary action. This could be for a failure to follow a reasonable instruction or for a breach of contract if a location is specified in their terms and conditions. In either event, this will need to be carefully managed. It’s imperative in these situations that the correct disciplinary processes are followed and that there is clear documentation that shows the steps taken, discussions held, adjustments considered and why it is reasonably necessary to work from the office.

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