The number of employees on long term sickness absence, and the willingness of many GPs to simply sign employees off sick, is a cause of great concern to employers. The replacement of sick notes with fit notes does not appear to have improved the situation. The introduction of the new Fit for Work service is a further attempt to pro-actively tackle this very difficult and costly issue – and it may just work.

The recommendation for this service came out of a review undertaken by Dame Carol Black and David Frost into sickness absence. The review, entitled ‘Health at work”, aimed to “minimise the loss of work resulting from ill health and to find ways of reducing the burdens and costs”. The costs of sickness absence are significant, with employers facing an annual bill of around £9 billion for sick pay and associated costs, and individuals missing out on £4 billion a year through lost earnings. [These figures are quoted by the government in support of the service].

The new service is due to be rolled out before the end of this year, with the service being fully up and running by May 2015. The service will provide occupational health assessments and also advice to employees, employers and GPs in order to get employees back to work. The primary referral route for an assessment will be via an employee’s GP, and referral will be the default option.

In terms of benefits, the main elements of the new service are early intervention (at the point that the employee approaches four weeks of sickness absence), holistic assessment and creation of a return to work plan. There is a timeframe within which each stage of the process is to take place, which is helpful in terms of trying to make sure that any issues are identified and addressed promptly. Of course there are some concerns as to how well resourced the service will be, and how quickly reports will in reality be produced.

Fit for Work is designed to complement, rather than replace, existing OH provision and to fill any gaps in supporting a return to work. If OH support is already being provided by the employer, then Fit for Work will try to find a way to work with that existing service.

The service will be focused on getting people back to work as soon as possible (the clue is in the name), and it is likely to be pro-employer in terms of how robust assessments and back to work plans are. This will be particularly helpful if employees can be brought back to work before absences become long term. Long term absences are incredibly difficult to deal with and can be self-perpetuating, for example as employees take further sickness absence to avoid possible capability or disciplinary proceedings.

The above is good news for employees as well as employers. Work is fundamental to many people’s sense of self and self-esteem, and unnecessarily long term sickness absence is in nobody’s best interests. It is therefore in everybody’s interests that this new service is effective. If the service doesn’t prove to be effective, then employers will need to continue to search for OH services which are robust enough to independently assess an employee’s fitness to work, rather than simply repeating what an employee has told them. As we all know, these are rare.

Posted on 31/10/2014 in Legal Updates

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