It is estimated that nearly a million employees a year remain absent from work for more than four weeks, that more than 130 million days are being lost to sickness absence every year, and that employers face an annual bill of around £9 billion for sick pay and associated costs. In this article, Stuart Chamberlain, author and employment law consultant, looks at the Fit for Work service.
In 2011 a review carried out by Dame Carol Black indicated that lack of access of employers to occupational health services, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses, was a significant factor in preventing employees returning to work. The Review’s key recommendation was the establishment of a state-funded health and work assessment and advisory service.
Introduction of the Fit for Work service
In response to these figures and to the recommendations of the Review, the Government is to introduce the Fit for Work service (formerly known as the Health and Work Service). This service will provide health and work advice through a website and telephone line and free referral for an occupational health assessment for employees who have reached, or are expected to reach, four weeks’ of sickness absence. The service is designed to help these employees to return to work sooner.
Fit for Work has provided a service in limited areas since October 2014. A full national service will be rolled out from April 2015.
To be eligible for referral by the employer, the employee must:
- Have had four weeks’ absence from work
- Have a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work
- Not have been referred for a FFW assessment within the last 12 months
- Give explicit consent which is informed and freely given.
Employees will not be eligible for referral to the assessment part of Fit for Work if:
- They live outside England, Wales or Scotland
- They are not absent from work
- They have previously been referred to the service within a 12 month period and have received a Return to Work Plan as a result
- Their GP has already referred them to Fit for Work
- They do not consent to the referral.
GPs will use their clinical judgment to decide when employees may not be suitable for referral, eg those who do not have a realistic prospect of returning to work or are patients in hospital in the acute phase of their medical condition.
Outline of the new service
The Fit for Work service aims to improve sickness absence and to help people who have been on sick leave for four weeks to get back to work. It provides an occupational health assessment and general health and work advice for GPs, employers and employees.
There are two elements to the service.
- Assessment: once the employee has reached, or is expected to reach, four weeks of sickness absence they will be referred by their own GP for an assessment by an occupational health professional, who will examine all the issues preventing the employee from returning to work. Employees will be contacted within two working days of a referral by the GP or employer. The assessment will usually take place over the telephone.
- Advice: employers, employees and GPs will be able to access advice through a telephone line and website.
After an assessment, employees will receive a Return to Work Plan with recommendations to help them get back to their job more quickly and information on how to get appropriate help and advice.
The scheme is open to all employers, and employees will be referred by a GP or their employer – although none will be obliged to use it.
Employees will be discharged from Fit to Work when they have returned to work or when the service can provide no further assistance or a return to work has not been possible after three months.
Is the service mandatory?
It is not mandatory to refer employees to the Fit to Work service or to progress the recommendations of the Return to Work Plan. Employee consent is required at all stages of the process. The DWP believes, however, that it will be good practice for employers to update their sickness absence polices to reflect the availability of the Fitness to Work scheme for all eligible employees.
It should certainly be useful to those small and medium-sized businesses that do not have ready access to occupational health services.
Some concern has been raised that the new service will replace the existing occupational health services but the DWP insist that Fit to Work is intended to complement, not replace other current services.
Who is paying for the service?
The Government is paying for the new service by diverting the way it funds sickness. With effect from 6 April 2014 employers can no longer reclaim statutory sick pay from the Government — the percentage threshold scheme (PTS). Employers are now wholly responsible for funding the sick pay paid to absent employees.
The money saved (estimated at £50 million a year) will be put towards the new service.
There is a tax exemption for amounts of up to £500 a year per employee for medical treatments recommended by the service or by employer-arranged occupational health services.
Points for employers
Employers should consider the following.
- The focus of the Fit for Work service is early intervention: to enable employees to return to work promptly.
- Use of the Fit for Work service could offer significant savings on current occupational health cost that are paid for privately.
- In order to accommodate the loss of PTS (since April 2014), employers should keep accurate records of absence and SSP.
- Sickness absence policies should be updated to reflect the availability of Fit for Work and any potential interactions with the workforce.
- Train managers about the new service and their potential responsibilities.
- Consider making a referral to an assessment if a GP has not already referred.
- Consider how to support recommendations in a Return to Work Plan.
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