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Returning to work after acquiring a visible difference

We answer some of the questions you may have as you return to work, from talking to colleagues to seeking support from your employer.

Going back to work following an absence can be stressful for anyone. Returning to the workplace after suddenly acquiring a visible difference may bring added pressures, with uncertainty about how colleagues may react or whether your employer will understand your condition, mark or scar.

On this page, we answer some of the questions you may have if you’re returning to work after recently acquiring a visible difference. We discuss how to talk to your colleagues, how to seek support from your employer (including reasonable adjustments and flexible working), how to deal with customers’ reactions, and more.

The information on this page was put together by researchers from Queen Mary University of London.

Important: This page summarises some common questions relating to disfigurement equality at work in England and Wales as of April 2022. It relates to the work context only, not to the provision of goods or services or to other contexts. It gives a general overview but is not comprehensive and is for guidance purposes only. You should always seek legal advice on your particular circumstances.

I’m unsure how colleagues will react to how my appearance has changed

Consider talking to your employer about this.

Some people worry about being asked lots of questions about what happened. Usually questions from colleagues stem from curiosity or concern, especially if you have been off work for a period of time. However, people often don’t realise how difficult these questions can be and what they may be asking of you.

We wouldn’t routinely ask people questions like “Tell me about the worst day of your life” or “Tell me about your most traumatic or painful experience”. However, if you acquired your visible difference in an accident, this might in effect be what they are asking you.

When we have a traumatic experience, that memory is stored differently from our day-to-day memories and when we access this memory (as we do when we are asked a question) it can feel as if we are back in that moment. It is natural to want to avoid this. Explaining this to your manager can help them to understand why it might be helpful to give your colleagues some information before you return to work to limit the questions that you have to deal with.

One strategy you could discuss together is sending round a message to your colleagues before you return. Writing the message yourself, or asking to see it before it goes out, gives you control over how it is presented. If your employer is happy to do this, it can reduce the need for repeated explanations to everyone you meet when you go back in.

For example, your message could set out any of the following which feel appropriate to you:

  • Thanks for any well wishes during your absence.
  • A brief summary of how you are feeling.
  • Whether you’re happy to talk about it or would prefer just to get on with work.
  • Any ways that colleagues can help make your return to work easier.
  • How you are looking forward to catching up with colleagues and hearing their news.

If you do receive questions about your injury when you return, one technique which works well for some people is “explain / reassure / distract”. It can help to practise this strategy first with someone you trust.

Example of explain / reassure / distract

  • Explain: Explain to the other person to help them understand, for example, “It’s a scar from a burn injury.”
  • Reassure: Reassure the other person, for example, “I am much better now and recovering well thank you.”
  • Distract: Change the conversation to one you feel comfortable talking about, for example, “Do you think the rain will clear up this afternoon?” or, “What have I missed at work?” This lets the other person know that you no longer want to discuss your injury.

You could also talk to your employer about running some refresher training for staff about diversity and inclusion, including a section on appearance equality.

Spending some time planning for your return can be useful too. Think about the different aspects of your working life – for example, how you will get there and who you will see (not just those people you work closely with). Feeling prepared for every step in the day can help your return to work go smoothly. Meeting up with any close friends from work socially before your return can also be a good way to ease yourself back in.

How can I get my employer to understand my condition properly?

The thought of discussing your condition with your manager can be unsettling, especially when you may still be working out what it means yourself.

There probably isn’t one single “right” approach here – everyone’s work and medical situation is different. But here are a few suggestions to consider:

  • Think about who you want to speak to. While meeting your manager to talk about practicalities might be OK, you may feel more comfortable discussing relevant medical details with someone from HR or occupational health. Most managers won’t take offence if you explain that you’d like to keep some of the medical details separate from your daily work life. Your employer may ask for your consent to seek advice from occupational health to help them understand the impact of your injury on you. Have a look at the Acas website for more information about occupational health referrals.
  • Consider whether it would be helpful for your doctor or someone with close knowledge of your medical care to speak to your employer on your behalf. If so, be clear with this person in advance if there are any details which you would wish to keep private. If your employer requests a report from your doctor, you may have rights relating to it – such as the right to see it. Visit the Acas website for more information.
  • Have a look at our other guidance on working with a visible difference for other ideas.

Can I get some changes made to my role or uniform to help me return?

You may be considered to be a disabled person for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. This may apply even if you do not consider yourself to be disabled and could give you the right not to be discriminated against as a disabled person. Have a look at our page on your legal protections in the workplace to find out whether this may apply to you.

If this is the case, your employer may be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to avoid you being substantially disadvantaged due to your disability in certain respects. This applies where the employer knows (or ought reasonably to know) about both the disability and the substantial disadvantage. A change to your uniform (perhaps to cover or prevent irritation of your visible difference) or to particular role duties (for example, to avoid aggravating a visible difference) may, depending on the context, be a reasonable adjustment that your employer would need to make. Note that your employer is not necessarily obliged to agree to all of your adjustment requests and could also suggest alternatives.

If your visible difference does not amount to a disability, the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments does not apply, but your employer may still be willing to make some changes to help you. To help the conversation go well, it might assist if you are able to explain:

  • Why you would like these changes, for example, “The fabric of the uniform aggravates my skin injury.”
  • If you can propose a good alternative, for example, “I have a long-sleeve cotton shirt of the same colour as the uniform which I could wear instead”.
  • Whether this change would need to be permanent or could be reviewed in due course.

If you feel your employer is behaving unreasonably, seek legal advice about your options without delay.

Part-time and flexible working

Can I return part-time initially?

Unless there is anything in your employer’s policies and procedures which allows you to return part-time, one or more of several routes might be useful:

  1. The law says that employees with at least 26 weeks’ service can request a flexible working arrangement. This could include a temporary (or permanent) reduction in hours.
  2. If your visible difference counts as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, a reduction in hours could be a reasonable adjustment which your employer is required to make.
  3. Even if neither of the above apply, you can still make an informal request to your employer for some temporary adjustments to help you return to work.

These three options are explained in more detail below. Note, though, that a reduction in hours may result in a pay reduction too, so you should discuss this with your employer in advance to understand the financial implications.

Can I make a flexible working request?

An employee with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service has the right to request flexible working – either temporarily or permanently. Only one formal request can be made in any 12-month period and there are some other exceptions about who is able to apply.

If you are eligible to make a formal flexible working request, you should put your request in writing, with the date on it. Your request should specify:

  • That it is an application made under the flexible working statutory procedure.
  • What change you are seeking and from which date. If your request is for a temporary reduction only, make this clear and specify when you anticipate returning to your normal hours.
  • What effect you think it might have on your employer and colleagues and how this could be dealt with.
  • Whether you have made a previous request and when.

This is only a right to request – not a right to have your request granted – but it does require your employer to consider your request and respond (usually) within three months. A request can be refused on a number of grounds. You can find out more about this process and possible outcomes on the Acas website.

Flexible working as a reasonable adjustment

If you are a disabled worker, a temporary reduction in hours could be a reasonable adjustment which your employer is required to make. This may depend on a number of factors including:

  • How well the reduced hours would work.
  • How practicable it would be.
  • The cost and extent to which it would disrupt the business.
  • Your employer’s resources and whether financial assistance is available to them.
  • The nature and size of your employer’s business.

In many contexts, a request for a temporary reduction in hours to facilitate your return to work could be a reasonable adjustment. Be aware that reducing your hours may reduce your pay so seek clarity from your employer first. Also remember that your employer is not always obliged to agree to your adjustment requests and may sometimes suggest alternatives.

There is no set process to request a reasonable adjustment but you can combine this with a flexible working request by specifically mentioning reasonable adjustments in your request.

Informal request

If neither of the above routes are open to you, you can still make an informal request to your employer for a temporary reduction in hours to facilitate your return to work.  In practice many employers are willing to agree reduced return to work measures to help an employee’s recovery. Your employer may ask for some evidence to support your request.

You may have a right to see any GP report – see the Acas website for more information. GPs have the ability to issue a “fit to work” note which includes recommended adjustments, so it might be worth discussing this with your doctor. Similarly, your company may ask for your consent to refer you to an occupational health adviser for assessment, so this may be an opportunity to discuss phased return to work measures.

If you feel your employer is being unreasonable in its stance, seek immediate legal advice (see below).

Am I entitled to take time off work to attend medical appointments?

Unless provided in your contract, once you are fit to work there is no general right to take time off for medical appointments (save for antenatal appointments). This means that time off for medical appointments is usually at your employer’s discretion.

However, if the medical appointment is required due to your disability, the duty to make reasonable adjustments may in some circumstances require your employer to permit you time off for the appointment. This time off may not be paid so seek clarity first.

What other kinds of reasonable adjustment might be relevant for a disabled person with a visible difference?

This all depends on the context of your work, the nature of your injury/condition and your employer’s business. However, adjustments which might be relevant for some people include:

  • Adjustments to hours, for example, reduction in working hours or flexible hours.
  • The ability to work from home when needed.
  • An adjustment to any Teams/Zoom policies, allowing the individual to use “audio” only if desired.
  • Uniform adjustments (for example, looser clothing, different fabric, long sleeves etc).
  • Somewhere quiet to apply topical medication/change dressings if needed.
  • A locker to keep any medicines needed at work.
  • Adjustments to duties (including moving to a non-customer-facing role for a period of time if desired).
  • A mentor for difficult days.
  • Time off for medical appointments and/or psychological therapy.
  • If you are looking for a job, the duty to make reasonable adjustments can apply in respect of some of the recruitment process too.

You may wish to seek advice from your medical or physiotherapy teams about adjustments that they would recommend in your specific situation.

My doctor says I’m not ready to return but I need the money. Can I come back early?

If you can, it’s better to wait until your doctor agrees that you are ready to return. However, you can talk to your doctor and employer about any measures which might make it possible for you to return earlier – such as a phased return, additional breaks to apply medication, home-working, alteration of job duties and so on.

In terms of financial assistance in the meantime, consider:

  • Have you got any remaining entitlement to sick pay?
  • Check whether you have built up any paid holiday entitlement which you may be allowed to take while off sick.
  • Are you entitled to any state benefits? Citizens Advice can offer advice on entitlements.
  • If you are a trade union member, check whether your union has a financial assistance/hardship scheme. Consider joining a trade union if you are not in one – the TUC has a handy tool to help you find the trade union for your industry or sector.
  • Check whether you are owed a tax refund. Have a look at the Citizens Advice website.
  • There are a few other financial assistance ideas on the Money Helper website.

Your employer may not be willing to allow your return against medical advice either – this will depend on factors such as the outcome of any risk assessment or occupational health assessment which is carried out. If you want to return but your employer prevents you from doing so, you should seek legal advice immediately.

My visible difference resulted from an injury at work. I’m worried about returning in case it happens again.

You should seek legal advice and/or speak to your trade union to get support in ensuring that sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent a recurrence when you return. You may also wish to seek legal advice to see whether you would qualify for any compensation as a result of an injury sustained at work.

Sometimes returning to the situation/environment where a traumatic event took place can be very difficult and bring back painful memories. In this situation, seeking support (for example, talking to a trained specialist such as a psychologist) can be helpful.

How can I ensure my injury doesn’t stop my career progression?

If you feel that they will be receptive, have an honest conversation with your employer about this. Some managers may tend to “go easy” on you for a while on the assumption that this will help you. If that’s not what you want or need, be honest about that. Having a conversation with your manager can sometimes prevent inaccurate assumptions from getting in the way and give you the opportunity to set the tone for your return.

Having said that, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how you are feeling. Try not to compromise your recovery by taking on too much too soon. A good manager should understand that even a committed and talented employee may need a gradual reintroduction after a significant injury.

If you feel that your employer is side-lining you or removing responsibilities from you unnecessarily (for example, moving you away from a customer-facing role due to a visible injury despite you making clear that you want to continue working normally), seek legal advice without delay.

What is the best way to deal with customers who don’t know me or what happened?

Many people with a visible difference report the potential for awkwardness in their interactions with strangers. Often people stare because they are seeing something new rather than through malice, but it doesn’t make it any easier when they do.

It’s natural to want to avoid this awkwardness, and we have plenty of advice on how to manage difficult reactions from strangers.

Sometimes, inappropriate behaviour can go beyond awkwardness and lead to abuse. We should all be able to do our jobs without being abused. Every situation depends on context, so it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with your employer’s policies and procedures in advance of any situation arising. We have some advice on how to respond to abuse from customers on our page about your legal protections in the workplace. We also have a general page on what to do if you experience abuse, a hate incident or a hate crime.

Where can I get legal advice?

Below is a list of organisations which may be able to offer guidance or free legal advice on this topic. Always check whether you will be charged for the advice in advance.

Alternatively, you could consult a solicitor local to you who specialises in employment law (always check the cost basis before doing so).

Do not delay seeking legal advice where needed, as short timescales can apply for legal action to be taken.

I am an employer. How should I support one of my workforce who has a visible difference?

This guide is aimed at individuals rather than employers. We have a range of other guides to help employers support employees with a visible difference on our website. Keep checking back as we hope to add more material soon.

The following websites contain general guidance on various employment law topics for employers:

There are many paid subscription helplines for employers with HR queries.

Who helped write this guide?

This guidance was produced by researchers at Queen Mary University of London, with grateful thanks to:

  • Dr Katherine Nutt, Senior Clinical Psychologist, St Andrews Burns Centre, Broomfield Hospital, Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust
  • The VTCT Foundation
  • The Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England

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