Fit for Work is the Government’s plan to reduce sickness absence in the workplace but will it work?

Sickness absence in the workplace is a big problem. The government reported that 960,000 employees were absent from work due to sickness for a month or more on average between September 2010 and October 2013. 130 million days are being lost to sickness absence every year which costs the economy £100 billion

A major review was carried out in 2011 with a number of recommendations made to help improve sickness absence in the workplace. One of the recommendations was to introduce a government-funded assessment by an occupational health professional for employees that are absent from work due to sickness for 4 weeks or more. The idea is that the assessment will provide advice and assistance to help employees return to work as soon as possible to reduce the costs to businesses and the tax payer.

The new Fit for Work plan will be provided by a private company by the name of Health Management Limited. It is likely to be launched on a phased basis from late 2014 and is expected to be fully implemented by May 2015.

In summary, the Fit for Work will provide:
• An occupational health assessment when an employee reaches, or is expected to reach, more than 4 weeks’ sickness absence. This will usually be a referral made by the employee’s GP
• A case manager to support each employee through the assessment process to ensure their level of need is correctly identified along with appropriate steps to get them back to work.
• More general health and work advice for GPs, employers and employees via the telephone and a website.
• A return to work plan that will be shared with the employer and GP.
• A tax exemption of up to £500 a year for each employee on payments for medical treatments recommended by Fit for Work, or an employer-arranged occupational health service.

This process will not involve any changes to the law and can only really be used where it compliments an employer’s existing capability and sickness absence procedures. There are some concerns as to the suitability of the service as follows:

• There are queries as to whether the occupational health advisors will be suitably qualified to provide advice on the possibilities of the employee returning to work
• There are queries concerning the quality of the service. For example, it has been suggested that some assessments may take place by telephone rather than face-to-face. Some employees may not feel comfortable discussing sensitive issues on the phone and occupational health advisors may find it more difficult to carry out an assessment by telephone
• The aim of the service is to assist employees returning to work. Will an occupational health advisor under this scheme be willing to advise in appropriate cases that the employee is unlikely to ever be fit to return to work? Employers in these situations want clear answers on prognosis and likely timescales for the employee to return to work. Will this service provide this?
• There may be issues surrounding the time within which the employee will be referred for an occupational health assessment. For example, an employee may have a complex condition and in those circumstances, it is usually some time before they will be referred to a consultant or other specialist for advice. Employers may not want the occupational health assessment to be carried out until the employee has obtained medical evidence/reports from other sources which can then be passed to the occupational health assessor for their review and consideration as part of their assessment.

If you have an employee who is absent from work and require advice on how to implement a capability procedure to enable you to consider whether the employee is able to return to work or how to enter into negotiations to agree the termination of the employee’s employment by entering into a settlement agreement, please contact a Farleys Employment Law solicitor on 0845 050 1958 or email us.