Can employers legally make you go back to work?

Caroline Illing of Howes Percival (inset) on whether employers can make staff go back to work. Pictu

Caroline Illing of Howes Percival (inset) on whether employers can make staff go back to work. Picture: Getty/Howes Percival - Credit: Getty/Howes Percival

Many businesses are looking at how they can reopen their workplaces following Boris Johnson’s announcement at the weekend. The prime minister instructed those who cannot work from home to go back to work - if it was safe to do so. However some people may be told by employers they have to go back to work, but are not comfortable in doing so.

MORE: Personal Finance: I rely on dividends for my income, what do I do?Caroline Illing, an associate in Howes Percival’s employment team in Norwich, said that emplyers “cannot require an employee or worker to return to work if it is unsafe to do so”. She added: “If the work environment is safe, an employer can ask an employee or worker to return to work. If an employee or worker refuses, it is essential that the employer takes the time to fully understand the reasons behind this refusal before making any decision regarding the refusal.

“It is these reasons for the refusal that will be key as to whether any decisions or actions that follow are lawful or not. If the reasons relate to a protected characteristic, for example age, disability or pregnancy, then further advice should be sought.”

Ms Illing also said that it is necessary for every business to be properly prepared for a return to work.

“Without exception, every employer must carry out a covid risk assessment for their workplace to enable it to make the right decisions as to how social distancing and hand/surface cleanliness can be maintained across the workplace,” she said.

MORE: Q&A: What the government is advising each sector on returning to work“Part of the risk assessment process is to engage any unions or employee representatives in the process, or possibly the employees themselves, to work with them to understand the risks and to find practical ways to address these.

“In an ideal workplace, everyone will understand the assessment and agree how work will be carried out.

“It is understandable that some employees or workers may be anxious about returning to work and a key step in addressing that anxiety is the risk assessment and the communication of it.”