Can Staff Refuse to Return to Work Due to COVID-19?

Young people with face masks back at work in office after coronavirus lockdown

With guidance encouraging a return to the workplace, some employers are finding that staff are raising concerns about health protection arrangements and refusing to return to work. How should you handle it?

Back in the saddle

With a return to work some staff are edgy about the risks they face on their journey to work and in the workplace itself. In some cases, this is resulting in staff refusing to return to work. One recent example of well-publicised dissent was seen in Parliament when a trade union threatened a walkout over the lack of social distancing when MPs queued to vote. The PCS union said that its clerks and security guards, many of whom are from ethnic minorities, were at increased risk by MPs getting too close.

Appropriate response

Each case needs to be approached individually.

  • Consider whether you are in tune with guidelines by asking for a return to work in the first place. For example, if the work could be completed from home, is it right to be asking for attendance?
  • Assuming you’re on firm ground, you’ll need to establish the employee’s reasons for not feeling safe. This could be due to:
    • personal health vulnerability,
    • living with someone who is shielding or
    • has a heightened level of anxiety in general.

You’ll then need to respond accordingly, or example by offering additional adjustments to the working arrangements.

It’s not worth rushing into a confrontation with an employee. Changes are happening quickly so what might seem like a major crisis today could dissolve as the pandemic comes to an end.

Note. If an employee puts their safety concerns in writing it’s a protected disclosure and you must treat it correctly under your whistle-blowing policy.


Particularly at the early stages of returning to work, it’s important to gain staff confidence in your health and safety measures.

  • Be transparent about coronavirus risks and your risk control measures. The minimum legal requirement on sharing of risk assessments is that you must tell staff the significant findings. Many employers choose to simply share the whole document. Consult with staff, asking for feedback as to whether there are further improvements which they would like to see.

Don’t hold back

This is one time when it’s advisable to go over the top on your health and safety measures, thereby reassuring staff that you have the risk under control. Highly visible changes to the workplace such as screens, may or may not significantly reduce the risk, but in this case that’s not the only consideration. By giving the right signals, you’ll encourage individuals to conform to rules such as hand washing and social distancing.

  • As a minimum, display a sign at your entrance explaining what you require of staff or visitors. Set the scene, e.g. with tape on the floor to mark safe distances and rules about the maximum number allowed in welfare facilities at one time

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