Going back to a job after a long spell of leave can be daunting for both employers and employees. But, with the right support network in place, it needn’t be. Katie Daubney and Katie Kilgallen report

Life’s unpredictable nature means that the reasons people have for taking long stretches of time off work are many and varied. Maternity leave is the most common, but sickness, disability, child care or a sabbatical all necessitate a career break. For retailers, it can be a challenge to manage the eventual return of an employee to work in a way that benefits the employee, their colleagues and the business.

The key to managing an employee’s return is communication. Marks & Spencer, for instance, agrees the kind of communication the individual will have with their line manager before they leave. This could take the form of monthly e-mails, phone calls or visits. If possible, visits to the store are also organised, so it does not become an unfamiliar and daunting place to the person on leave and they can keep in touch with their colleagues. They are also kept in the loop about any management changes or store layout alterations.

Legally, all employers are required to offer 10 Keeping In Touch (KIT) days as an option for women on maternity leave. At Carphone Warehouse, employees simply drop in for half a day, have a cup of coffee and catch up with colleagues. The mobile phone retailer is now also testing a scheme for new mothers who have just returned to work. For three months, women receive regular one-on-one coaching to get them up to date. Carphone Warehouse group director of human resources Richard Smelt says: “Coaching helps. Your view of the world becomes very different when you have other people to think about.”

Many employers feel it is unreasonable to expect someone who has been off sick for three months to come straight back to a 35-hour week and will also review the nature of their responsibilities. At Marks & Spencer, for example, a person’s duties might be altered. For instance, if they were previously replenishing stock, they might be transferred to the fitting rooms for a period of time. On their first day back, they have a day of coaching to update their knowledge of key required skills and procedures, such as operating the till, followed by a review meeting with their line manager.

Debenhams employee relations manager Amanda Cotton says the department store chain has occupational health practitioners on hand to work with people who have been off work for a long time because of sickness. “We react to whatever has been the issue in terms of sickness,” she says.

Sue Ashtiany, partner and head of employment at law firm Nabarro, believes that because retailers recruit against footfall, they should be well placed to offer flexible working practices where necessary. Cotton backs this up. “We try and have a flexible approach with each individual. Every person has different needs and priorities and we want to ensure they get back to work as smoothly as possible,” she says. Likewise, a Marks & Spencer spokeswoman says: “We do have a flexible working policy and consider all reasonable requests, as long as they don’t miss out on training and development.”

Importantly, disability, sickness and maternity leave are all areas that are subject to rigid employment laws, and retailers must ensure they are adhering to the legal standards. At a bare minimum, an employee taking maternity leave is entitled to 26 weeks at£100 a week and a further 26 weeks of unpaid leave. After this time, a woman returning to work has the right to resume her old job or, if it no longer exists, a job on very similar terms and conditions. In practice, many companies now offer more favourable terms.

In terms of disability, the employee has a legal right to expect their employer to make reasonable adjustments in order to keep them at work, and dismantle all barriers to that person being able to do their job. Duties might need to be changed to ones that they can carry out with their disability, time off might have to be granted for treatment or arrangements made for any necessary equipment to be brought in.

But the law can also be fuzzy. For example, simply defining what is meant by “disability” can be problematic. Legislation now goes as far as recognising stress as a disabling condition and, as such, employers are obliged to consider whether a specific task would be unduly stressful. The long-term sick have no specific rights except to expect their employers to make “reasonable provision”.

Since April 2003, parents with children under six and disabled children under 18 have had the right to request flexible working hours to facilitate child care. Regulations in the UK place an obligation on employers to “consider requests seriously”. A simple “no” isn’t good enough – employers must have a reasoned argument based on a valid business case as to why flexible work is not an option for the employee concerned.

As Smelt says: “You have to comply with the law. You’ve got to have a very good reason why you can’t offer part-time, and you’ve got to be objective.”

Requests for flexible working could include changing work hours, switching to flexi-time, job sharing, working from home, shift working, going for staggered hours or term-time working. But it is primarily up to the employee to come up with the appropriate option for them. There are also “zero-hours contracts”, where the retailer notifies the employee when they will be required. “You have to be open-minded,” advises Smelt. “Flexible discussions will in most cases get you to a good result.”

The changes made will be considered permanent unless otherwise agreed. So the employee has no automatic right to change back to the previous working pattern. And, similarly, the employer has no automatic right to end the new working patterns.

Another concern for employers is the impact on the rest of the team, as employees who do not need such special provisions might resent others’ legal rights. To address this, some companies have adopted a policy of not asking employees their reasons for wanting to work flexibly. This stops childless employees feeling disenchanted.

Debenhams offers the option to apply for flexible working opportunities to all employees, regardless of their situation. Cotton explains: “We offer flexible working to every individual – even though, legally, we only have to offer it to a few. Working hours and rotas are one of the key elements to retaining individuals, so we try to accommodate them as best we can.”

Smelt says the key is to be consistent in the way you deal with people. Other employees will not complain if they know everyone is being rewarded for the hours they work on a pro-rata basis.

The huge diversity of modern-day lifestyles needs to be reflected in the way employers allow people to return to work. Adhering to the law and providing clear guidelines to managers and employees is essential. But, legislative requirements aside, being flexible and supportive where you can be will also result in a far more positive and committed workforce.