Construction Q&A: returning to work early

Returning to work early

If they wish to, after a period of sickness, an employee’s within their rights to return to work sooner than their fit note says they ought to.

In the event of this though, there are certain things to be aware of – some of which we’ll answer now.

Q: Does the employee need a note from their doctor to return?

A: No, they don’t. If an employee feels ready to return to work, they can do so of their own accord. This applies even if their doctor has requested to assess them again before they return.

Q: What if you don’t think they’re ready to return?

A: Working in the construction industry can be physically demanding, as such, it’s imperative that employees are physically capable of performing their role. The slightest dip in concentration or stability could result in potentially fatal accidents, so their return shouldn’t be taken lightly.

You should hold a return to work meeting to discuss the employee’s fitness for their duties, and if you’re concerned an employee isn’t quite ready to return to their job you should either:

  • Organise a phased return with lighter duties; or
  • You could refuse their return (if the first option isn’t practicable).

Bear in mind though, if you refuse their return, this is likely to be classed as a ‘medical suspension’ and you’ll have to provide them with full pay.

Q: Should I carry out a back to work risk assessment for the employee?

A: Absolutely – this is a key part in identifying any risks, implementing required adjustments, and facilitating a safe return to the working environment. The assessment must be conducted by a competent person – usually the employee’s line manager.

If you have a medical report, this will normally form the basis of the risk assessment. You should use the restrictions and recommendations set out in the report to work out what adjustments will need to be made for the employee to safely carry out their job.

If the employee doesn’t have a medical report, you should discuss what, if anything, they think might be an issue. From this, you can then figure out what reasonable adjustments can be made to support their return.

In addition to probing the employee, the competent person carrying out the risk assessment should carefully consider any potential risks too. If anything arises that the employee and assessor aren’t sure about, advice should be sought from the employee’s doctor or an occupational health adviser.

The following documentation should be brought to the back to work risk assessment:

  • A copy of the employee’s job description and/or person specification;
  • A medical report – if they have one;
  • A work adjustment assessment form; and
  • Copies of previous, relevant risk assessments.

Q: What are the most common issues to look out for?

A: Because of the physical nature of the work, musculoskeletal disorders – like bad backs – are a common occurrence among construction workers.

Adding to this, a lot of construction workers are self-employed (and so aren’t entitled to sick pay), so when they aren’t working, they aren’t earning. Because of this, they’ll return to work sooner than they should to get paid.

If you’ve an employee who’s suffering from musculoskeletal disorders and you’re not confident they’re fit enough to carry out their role, you should either allow them to return to lighter duties – if practicably possible.

Q: Can employees continue taking painkillers when they return?

A: If an employee’s returning from sickness and taking strong painkillers, you can’t refuse them their medication. However, there are several things you should be mindful of.

Strong painkillers can affect employees’ cognitive behaviours, balance and peripheral vision, which is dangerous to both them and those in the proximity.

If you’re concerned any of the employee’s capabilities may be compromised because of the painkillers, you should remove them from high risk duties like working at height or driving plant, for example.

Q: What if an employee’s suffering from stress?

A: Stress is a big issue in the construction sector. In fact, according to research*, almost half (48%) of construction workers are kept awake at night because of workplace stress.

What’s keeping them up? Workload, client demands, line management, workplace politics and salary are some of the top causes.

The physical side effects from stress can have a huge impact on employees’ performance. From lack of energy and headaches, to insomnia and frequent colds, the side effects can soon be felt – both in and out of work.

If you know or suspect an employee’s suffering from stress, you should offer support as and where you can – like temporary flexible working arrangements, reduced workloads or delegating responsibilities (if needed), for example.

In the construction industry, there can be stigma around stress – and mental health in general for that matter. As an employer, it’s essential you break these barriers so that your workforce feeling comfortable and confident coming forward with any issues, so that you can support their overall wellbeing.

Who’s looking after you?

Here at Citation, we really do understand the struggles of the construction industry. We get that juggling workloads, changing environments, employee welfare and legal obligations can be tricky, and that’s why we’re here to help.

With us by your side, you’ll have 24/7 access to industry-leading Health & Safety experts, annual inspections, and unlimited access to our Health & Safety management tool, Atlas.

For more information on how we can help you, get in touch with the team on 0345 844 1111 or

*Research conducted by A-SAFE.

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