Four ways to beat the back to work blues

6 Sep 2017 By Ian Jones

Legal expert Ian Jones explains how to support staff who might be struggling with the transition from ‘holiday mode’

Whether you are a culture vulture or sun worshipper, holidays allow us to relax and unwind. Unfortunately, the physical and mental health benefits of holidays can disappear quickly when returning to the routine and stresses of the workplace, especially for workers with children starting school or transferring to secondary school. But there are things that employers can do to help.

1. Negotiate permanent changes to working arrangements

Flexibility is the key to easing the transition out of ‘holiday mode’. Many employers may have already agreed to requests for flexible working, with new arrangements starting in September. The changes could be a reduction in hours, a job share or term-time working. Where trial periods have been agreed for the new working patterns it is important to monitor these.

In June 2014, the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees if they have 26 weeks' continuous employment when the request is made and have not made a request in the preceding 12 months.

Dealing with ‘competing’ requests for flexible working can be challenging. What if somebody wants to reduce their hours to spend more time on their new passion for windsurfing? What if a working parent decides this is the ideal time to start part-time working? Should requests for family related reasons be given greater priority?

Acas recommends that requests should be considered in the order they are received; employers are not required to make ‘value judgements’ about the most deserving request. In reality, this might be difficult. Subconsciously or not, the person considering the request may think some requests have more merit than others. In addition, they may take into account the potential implications of rejecting a request where there is the risk of a possible discrimination claim because of a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010. The important thing is to consider all requests reasonably and fairly, looking at the benefits of the requested changes for the employee and the organisation, and weighing these against any adverse business impact.

2. Offer short-term flexibility

Sometimes employees won’t want to make a formal request for flexible working (which means a permanent change to terms and conditions), but instead seek some short-term flexibility, such as adjusting their starting and finishing times to accompany their child to school for the first few weeks. Often employers will agree that the time can be made up but, whatever is agreed, employers must act consistently when dealing with such requests.    

But what if an employee’s child has had an accident or is unwell? Employees have a statutory right to time off for dependants under section 57A of the Employment Rights Act 1996. They can take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work in certain circumstances; for example, to deal with an unexpected incident involving their child during school hours. No qualifying period of service is needed. In most cases, one or two days off should be sufficient as the right is intended to cover unexpected events or emergencies and allow time to make any longer-term arrangements.

3. Support career progress

People often reflect on their job while on holiday; some return invigorated and motivated, and others just want to resign. It is important to find out why someone is thinking of leaving; perhaps they just want a break, or the work isn't challenging, or there's no career progression. Consider what learning and development opportunities are available or what new skills the employee can learn to support their career development. A paid sabbatical could be a good alternative to losing a valued member of staff or to a period of unpaid leave.      

4. Don’t forget about wellbeing

Finally, now might be a good time to review your employee health and wellbeing initiatives.

Hopefully, people return from holidays feeling refreshed, but back in the office they may soon feel stressed and anxious as the work piles up. A mental health first aid scheme – where trained mental health champions raise awareness of mental health issues and provide support – can be very beneficial, as can counselling, which is offered by many larger employers.    

Ian Jones is a senior associate in the employment law team at Blake Morgan

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