Suspension: out of sight, out of mind?

Gary Wedderburn , subject matter expert

Gary Wedderburn is a subject matter expert at Acas in the Workplace Policy team. His role helps inform Acas's website advice by identifying and researching areas of public policy that affect everyone in the world of work.

Deciding to temporarily suspend someone from their role is a serious step for any manager to take. It's a step that can be profoundly distressing for the person, difficult for you, and can negatively affect others working in close proximity.

It follows that suspensions should only be taken after careful deliberation of alternatives, and whether a suspension is necessary to protect:

  • a fair investigation – for example if you're concerned about someone damaging evidence or influencing witnesses
  • the business – for example if there's a genuine risk to your customers, property or business interests
  • other staff
  • the person under investigation

Where you do decide to suspend, you may feel like you have closed off one difficult aspect of investigating an allegation. After all, the person is out of the workplace until the investigation is complete, they're being paid, and a suspension is not an indication of guilt, right?

New advice from Acas on suspension describes the many important wellbeing considerations that should weave through every part of the suspension process, from start to finish, and afterwards too.

The effect on the suspended person

The biggest direct effect can be on the suspended employee themself.

If the suspension process is unclear or misunderstood, being asked to stop working can feel like being found at fault. And in this context, being suspended can lead to feelings of failure, guilt, shame and fear of loss of earnings or professional status.

The person will often worry about their:

  • working relationships with colleagues, customers and clients
  • relationship with you
  • return to work and how that might be handled
  • home life – being suspended can put a strain on personal relationships
  • future – thinking about what might happen to their job, or their career

The effect an enforced period of suspension can have on a person cannot be underestimated. Particularly for any prolonged period they're out of the workplace, and even in circumstances where suspension is dealt with clearly and reasonably.

It can lead to negative effects on the suspended person's wellbeing, resulting in – or worsening – physical and mental health problems, including stress, anxiety and depression.

Supporting mental health and wellbeing

Supporting the mental health of the person throughout their suspension not only makes moral sense, but it can also reduce the risk of legal consequences for you or your organisation.

Acas advice encourages all employers to carefully consider the following areas.

Prepare the person for suspension

If it's decided that a period of suspension is merited, it's always best to speak with them in person. During this discussion, you should clearly:

  • explain the process: the purpose, every stage and the expected duration of the suspension
  • outline the concerns being explored, emphasising that the suspension does not mean an assumption of fault or wrongdoing
  • discuss and agree what information should be shared with colleagues, and, where appropriate, clients
  • let the person know what support is available from the get-go, and encourage and support them to access help at each step of the way

Keep in contact during suspension

Confirming the situation in writing with the person you're suspending is a critical step and can help avoid any misunderstandings.

They will naturally need time to absorb the information, but keeping in regular contact during suspension is also important to maintain trust and engagement. You should:

  • discuss and agree an appropriate level of contact for them
  • make clear who they can contact about any pending investigation and ensure they are available for the individual to contact as and when needed
  • allow time and space for them to ask questions, raise any concerns and discuss how they feel and what help might be beneficial
  • make sure they have continuing access to any support they may need, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP) or trade union

Plan a smooth post-suspension return

A suspension should never last longer than is necessary, and any unreasonable period can damage wellbeing and trust between you and your employee.

Where you have agreed that the person can come back to work, you need to carefully plan not only the practicalities, but also how to ease the transition back and reintegrate them.

This can be a particularly challenging time for everyone: for the person returning, for team colleagues and for you. A discussion prior to their return should cover:

  • the timings for when they will come back
  • the messages that should be conveyed to others
  • any questions or concerns about returning to work
  • the support available, with agreed check-ins to see how the return is going for them

Keeping people in mind

Speaking to the suspended person and providing access to support throughout suspension is paramount.

The path can be smoothed if everyone fully understands the nature of a suspension, knows the plan from the start, feels informed, and is never judged. Facilitating a return to work post suspension is an equally important part of this.

Suspension is never an easy process for anyone involved, but care and attention to process and communications can help manage relations and protect wellbeing.

Read our suspension advice