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Fit for work, fit for purpose?

Figures for last year suggest that workers in the UK take in excess of 130 million days’ sickness absence annually. That’s an awful lot of sick days!

The government’s solution to this problem has come in the form of the Fit for Work service, which completed its roll out this month. The service aims to offer both employers and employees access to online and telephone advice from a team of occupational health (OH) professionals. With working-age ill health costing the national economy an estimated £100 billion each year, will the government’s new Fit for Work scheme prove to be fit for purpose?

So, how does the scheme work? In summary, once an employee has reached, or is expected to reach, four weeks of sickness absence, their GP can refer them for a free OH assessment. The employer can also do so, but only once the employee has been absent for at least four weeks. Regardless of who refers the employee, they must have given their explicit consent to participate in the process. An employee is able to withdrawn their consent at any time, making consent an integral part of the scheme’s success.

Once an employee has been referred, a two working day turn around is set for the employee to be assessed on the telephone. The assessment is designed to address the employee’s symptoms in the context of their job, home and lifestyle factors. It is therefore intended to go beyond solely reviewing work factors.

The outcome of an assessment should be a Return to Work plan. This will contain advice and recommendations to help facilitate the employee returning to work. The Return to Work plan therefore replaces the “fit note” which we are used to GP’s issuing as confirmation that an employee is not fit for work. Whilst it is not mandatory for employers to act on the advice and recommendations contained in the Return to Work plan, doing so is likely to be viewed as a reasonable adjustment.

A tax exemption of up to £500 per employee per tax year will apply to qualifying employer-expenditure, including treatment that is recommended in the Return to Work plan.

Whilst it is incredibly early days, some concerns have been raised about the mechanics of the scheme. For example:

  • Is a four-week absence too long to trigger such a referral?
  • Is the lack of face-to-face consultation going to make it more difficult for employers to rely on OH reports and to ensure appropriate reasonable adjustments are recommended? In addition, face-to-face assessments also help to give a sense of the validity of the employee’s ailments.
  • Will the advisers be of a consistent quality?
  • Employers will have less control over the questions asked of these advisers, in contrast to requesting reports from their own occupational health providers.
  • There are also questions around Fit for Work being a voluntary service. Whether employees consent is likely to prove to be a to be a key factor in whether the scheme is successful.
  • Line managers will generally be the first point of contact for Fit for Work. Will they be appropriately equipped to respond to the recommendations provided?
  • What will the relationship be between using Fit for Work and an employer’s existing OH resources?

 It will be interesting to monitor the scheme’s uptake and to see how it evolves over the next 12 months.

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