Directions to return to work and the workplace

Published 12 June 2020 | Updated 1 December 2021

Employers can direct employees to work their normal hours (except if they’re on approved leave) if the direction is reasonable.

Directing employees to return to work or their workplace

States and territories may continue to have rules requiring people to work from home if they can. Employers need to stay up to date and comply with these requirements – see our list of enforceable government directions. If there is an enforceable government direction that applies, employers and employees need to follow it.

Employers can require (or direct) their employees to work their normal hours as long as the requirement is lawful and reasonable. This includes returning to the workplace.

Employers should continue exploring alternative working arrangements in their workplace, particularly while social distancing rules or COVID-19 vaccination requirements apply. Examples include supporting different types of work from home arrangements where possible or changing the patterns of work.

Employers also need to comply with their work health and safety and other legal obligations, as well as employees’ usual employment conditions.

More information:

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When employees refuse to return to work or their workplace

An employee can’t refuse an employer’s direction to perform work if the direction is reasonable and in line with their employer’s legal obligations.

Workplace health and safety issues

In some circumstances, employees may be able to refuse to return to work because of a reasonable concern about their health and safety or another legitimate reason.

Employers need to make sure they meet all workplace health and safety (WHS) obligations required of them during COVID-19. For information about what this includes, visit Workplace health and safety.

If an employee’s refusal to return to the workplace relates to COVID-19 vaccinations, we can provide general guidance on how vaccination issues interact with laws under the Fair Work Act.

Safe Work Australia can provide information and guidance on WHS issues during coronavirus. This includes about COVID-19 vaccinations. Get industry specific advice on what WHS measures to keep a workplace healthy and safe at Safe Work Australia – COVID-19 information for workplaces external-icon.png.

If you have concerns or questions about WHS issues and you can’t resolve them in the workplace, you can contact your local body. Each state and territory has a WHS body that regulates and investigates breaches of WHS laws. Contact your state or territory body.

For more information about what we can help with, see Contact us.

When an employee doesn’t comply with a direction

Employers and employees are encouraged to work together to manage the return to the workplace.

If an employee has concerns about the safety of the workplace, they should raise their concerns with their employer as soon as possible.

Employers should consider sharing information about any steps they’ve taken to ensure a safe workplace and to help manage employee concerns.

If an employee doesn’t comply with their employer’s reasonable direction to return to work or their usual workplace, their employer may take disciplinary action against them. In some circumstances, this could include termination of employment. Employers need to make sure they comply with the general protections and unfair dismissal obligations in the Fair Work Act.

More information:

Example: Reasonable direction to return to workplace

Lottie is a full-time employee working at a small accounting firm.

For the past few months, Lottie’s employer has directed her to work from home because of coronavirus. When restrictions start easing, Lottie’s employer creates a return to work transition plan to gradually, and safely, return all employees to the workplace.

The firm has 10 employees in total and initially requires each of its employees to return to the workplace 2 days a week on a roster basis.

Lottie refuses the direction, saying she prefers working from home and doesn’t want to go back to the workplace. She says she is more productive working from home because of the time saved on the long commute to work.

The direction to return to work is reasonable and in line with the employer’s legal obligations, including under Lottie’s employment contract, workplace health and safety laws, and any enforceable government directions. If Lottie continues to refuse to return to the workplace 2 days a week, her employer could take disciplinary action. This could include a formal warning or in some circumstances termination of employment.

Example: Employee reasonably refuses to return to workplace

Marcus is a full-time employee working for a small architecture firm. The firm’s workplace is a small office at the back of the employer’s home.

For several months, Marcus has been directed to work from home because of coronavirus. When some restrictions ease, his employer asks him to return to the office and perform his work there.

Marcus says the request is unreasonable and refuses to return to the office because he has health and safety concerns, including the difficulty of physical distancing at the employer’s house.

Marcus’ refusal is likely to be reasonable.

To find out who to contact about COVID-19 restrictions in your workplace, see Health and safety in the workplace.

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Changes to duties when returning to work

As employees return to work, employers may need to make changes to their usual duties because the business is operating differently. Before making any changes, employers should check whether there are any rules about doing this in any applicable:

  • award
  • agreement
  • employment contract.

Learn the rules that apply at Changes in working hours and duties.

Changes to some awards allow employers to direct employees to perform duties that are within their skill and competency. This includes if the duties aren’t part of an employee’s usual classification. See Changes to workplace laws during coronavirus.

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Alternative work arrangements when caring for a child

If an employee can’t return to the workplace because they need to care for a child whose school or childcare centre has closed, they should come to an arrangement with their employer.This could include requesting to work from home or taking some form of leave, such as annual leave or long service leave. Normal leave application processes apply.

Employees also have the option to request flexible work arrangements in certain circumstances. For more information, see Flexible working arrangements.

If an employee doesn't come to an arrangement to work from home with their employer, or doesn’t use paid leave, then they aren’t entitled to be paid.

Employees who need to care for a sick child can take carer’s leave (paid or unpaid). If a full-time or part-time employee has no paid carer’s leave left they can request to take unpaid carer’s leave. Unpaid carer’s leave is also available to casual employees, who are entitled to 2 days of leave per occasion. Learn more at Sick and carer’s leave.

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Use our employer tool and checklist

Our Returning to the workplace – interactive employer tool helps employers get their businesses back up and running during coronavirus.

The tool helps employers find information about returning to the workplace, scaling up operations and adapting to workplace changes. It can help you find the information you need when:

  • transitioning employees back to the workplace, including lifting a stand down
  • changing employees’ hours, duties or work location
  • introducing alternative working options for staff
  • keeping up to date with changes to workplace laws.

Use the Returning to the workplace – interactive employer tool now.

Employers can download our Return to work checklist for small business (DOCX) (PDF) to help make sure they’ve got key issues covered when bringing employees back to the workplace.

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