Employment e-Brief: Fit for Work Scheme
Tuesday 20th January 2015
The government’s “Fit for Work” scheme launched on 15 December 2014 to offer impartial advice to employers for dealing with long-term sickness absence. It was heralded as providing “an occupational health assessment and health and work advice to employees, employers and GPs to help people return to or stay in work after an illness”.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now published guidance for employers using the Fit for Work service. The full employer guidance is available here.
The 2011 independent review of sickness absence by Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE identified a lack of access to occupational health provision as one of the issues preventing employees returning to work. Many statistics were quoted including a suggestion that on average 960,000 employees were on sick leave for a month or more and that employers face an annual bill of around £9 billion for sick pay and associated costs.
The government accepted their recommendation to introduce an independent assessment service to help employees on sick leave get back to work. One of the key accepted recommendations was the introduction of a government-funded assessment by an occupational health professional of employees who are off sick for four weeks or more, with the aim being to provide expert advice and assistance to support the employee’s return to work.
The Fit for Work service was launched, initially on a phased basis, on 15 December 2014. The full service is expected to be available nationally by May 2015. Until then a website and telephone advice line is available to enable all employees and employers to obtain free and impartial work-related health advice. The new service has been designed to help employers manage sickness absence and provide them, their employees and GPs with access to work-related health advice. The expectation is that following full implementation, GPs will refer 54% of patients to the Fit for Work service.
So what will it provide? Free health and work advice, accessed via a website and telephone helpline to help with absence prevention including advice on adjustments and free referrals for an occupational health assessment for employees who have reached, or whose GP expects them to reach, four weeks of sickness absence.
It is expected that there will be some difficulties with the new system, the biggest of which is anticipated to be employees who will not give their consent. Without consent a referral to Fit for Work cannot be made. Concerns have also been expressed about whether case workers will not fully understand the employers’ businesses, the employees’ actual job roles, or availability of other suitable roles. The list goes on! Suffice to say as well, that increased demand from employers who have never previously used an OH service may well mean supply is outstripped by demand.
Immediate recommendations for employers
We suggest reviewing your sickness absence policies and procedures to reflect the new Fit for Work service and consider making it an express contractual requirement that employees consent which may assist in obtaining an employee’s explicit consent when referring to Fit for Work. The 4 week referral period to OH is likely to become in due course the default expectation on employers so steps to facilitate this ought to be put in place now so that employees become aware that they will be subject to this type of early scrutiny.
Whether this government-funded initiative will succeed in its aims remains to be seen but it is a useful reminder to employers who, perhaps up to now, have taken a more standoff-ish approach to long term sickness absence.
For more information and guidance contact Philip Paget or any member of the employment team.