Skip to main content

#returntowork: Can my employer force me to go back to the office?

Currently as things stand and in light of the recent government announcements it seems that many employers will expect their staff to return to their physical workplace on or around 19th July 2021, but at the time of writing much could change between now and then – especially as Covid cases are on the rise again.

If you aren’t in a vulnerable group, and there isn’t a clear reason for why you need to stay at home, then your employer might expect you to return to work, particularly if your job cannot be done as well from at home. As an employee you must comply with a reasonable management request, and to do otherwise may give rise to a disciplinary issue, especially if you refuse to attend work without a proper explanation. However, depending on the circumstances, if your employer is asking you to work somewhere that is unsafe, or if you have other issues which mean that you can't return to work, then the request for you to return to work might not be a reasonable one.

Ultimately, if you reasonably believe that your commute to your workplace would place you at serious and imminent danger then you may be able to refuse to travel to and from work, but this will vary on the facts and circumstances involved and there is not clear law on this at the moment. 

Recent employment tribunal decisions also suggest that if you reasonably believe your workplace is unsafe and would put you in serious and imminent danger then you may be able to refuse to attend or you can leave your workplace, but again this will vary on the facts and circumstances. 

Irrespective of the government position on Covid and if the Covid restrictions are dropped, health and safety legislation will continue to apply and employers must ensure the safety of their staff so far as reasonably practicable. There will be some people who are vulnerable to covid-19, this could include people with various health conditions, pregnant women, and the elderly, even if you’re fully vaccinated, this doesn’t guarantee immunity, so employers should be continue to be cautious.

Government guidance has previously been clear that workers should not be forced into an unsafe workplace and the health and safety of workers and visitors, and public health should not be put at risk.

Many employees are also currently struggling with issues around transport, and childcare, and issues regarding childcare could increase over the summer months when the schools are closed.

When problems arise, in the first instance you should discuss any concerns that you have with your employer, and try to work with them to find a way forward. If you remain unsatisfied with their response received then you may decide to raise a formal grievance.

Overall, employers should not attempt to “force” workers to return to their workplace, as to do so is likely to damage working relationships, and may give rise to potential legal claims.

There is also a reputational risk to employers who attempt to bully staff into returning to their workplace before they feel ready and able to do so. Now more than ever, people are more concerned by the behaviour of businesses towards their workers. We’ve already seen recent reports of employers dealing with “culture” issues in the media over the recent weeks and there is no doubt that this negative publicity can alienate customers and badly damage a business.

If an impasse is reached, then legal advice should be sought immediately, as there is no doubt that Covid represents challenges for both employees and employers alike.

The ending of lockdown rules doesn’t mean that employer's responsibility to staff just falls away, Danielle Parsons, an employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell told The Sun.”