If an employee has been signed off work for a particular period, can the employer allow them to return early?

An employer can allow an employee to return to work before the expiry of the period covered by a fit note, but should not do so without taking steps to ensure that this is appropriate.

There is no option on a fit note for a GP, or other healthcare professional, to advise that the employee is "fit for work", and it is not necessary for an employee to be "signed back" to work. It may be that the employee has recovered faster than expected, or the employee may suggest some adjustments that the employer could make to enable them to return to work, eg on different duties.

If an employee wishes to return to work before the end of the period covered by the fit note, the employer should discuss this with them and satisfy itself that returning to work will not exacerbate the employee's illness, slow their recovery or put other employees at risk. The employer should keep a record of the discussion and the reasons for its decision. The employer should consider carrying out a risk assessment before allowing the employee back to work; this may be required under the terms of its employer's liability insurance.

If the employer is unsure whether or not it would be appropriate for the employee to return, it could ask them to return to the healthcare professional who may provide a fit note indicating that the employee "may be fit for work" with certain adjustments to their duties, hours or workplace.

Employers should ensure that employees do not feel under pressure to return to work before they are fit to do so. There is a risk in allowing an employee back to work when they are signed off as not fit for work: if the employee finds that their condition has worsened as a result of the early return to work while certificated as unfit, this could result in a personal injury claim against the employer.