Share this on:

If you have an employee too anxious after lockdown to return to work, where do you stand as an employer?

Solitary confinement is one of the most extreme of punishments and that is what some employees will have been facing. NHS warnings issued to vulnerable people may have created further anxiety. Crucially, people have died simply because they turned up for work. High anxiety is understandable and not necessarily going to become a long-term illness. First, we look at the immediate situation you may face and at well-being actions below.

If you force a return to work

There is a serious risk that, if you reduce the employee’s status, discipline or if you threaten them with redundancy, the employee may resign, and you could face a claim for automatic unfair dismissal (i.e. no two-year qualifying service needed).

It is also easy to envisage that an employee could turn the object of their anxiety from Covid-19 to you, as their employer. You could find the employee claiming you are responsible for their anxiety. There are precedents where employees have successfully sued their employers for stress.

In any case, forcing the issue is likely to make the position worse. Not only do you risk a dysfunctional employee when they eventually return but other employees are bound to observe your approach and may be demotivated too.

In a separate blog we’ve discussed the value of re-assurance. This blog assumes such an approach has not been successful.

If you can continue their furlough for the time being, the situation may be different in a few weeks’ or months’ time. This might help you, or them, or it might not!

The employee can self-certify themselves as sick and, in due course, could obtain a doctor’s certificate. It leaves you liable for their sick pay.

It would be very unwise to make them redundant without there being a clear-cut reason for redundancy and a full and fair process.


Looking after the well-being of employees makes good commercial sense. Small employers have an advantage because they are closer to individuals and generally have more flexibility in actions they can take. Here are some suggestions you might consider:

  • Set aside some time to keep in contact
  • Avoid being intrusive, gentle enquiry only
  • Don’t take verbal attacks too personally
  • Sensitively encourage good behaviours, diet, exercise, social contact
  • Don’t provide “advice”
  • You can support, often just by showing interest, but it is not your responsibility to “fix” the anxiety
  • You can propose a phased return, a no-obligation visit to the workplace or contact with other employees (watch GDPR)
  • Be patient – Covid-19 will be behind us one day and so will the anxiety.

If an employee is too anxious to return after lockdown – it is just another business challenge!

Malcolm Martin FCIPD

Author Human Resource Practice

Blogs are for general guidance and are not an authoritative statement of the law.