The first part of the government's new Fit for Work service was launched in December 2014 across England, Scotland and Wales, and marks an important development in the management of sickness absence. All employers should be aware of this new service.
Fit for Work is designed to assist employers in managing sickness absence in their workplace by providing them with access to relevant work-related advice (this advice is also available for employees and GPs). It was introduced following an independent review of sickness absence, which recommended the introduction of an independent assessment service. In England and Wales, the scheme is being provided by the government's Department for Work and Pensions, and in Scotland by the Scottish Government. Fit for Work is designed to complement, not replace or duplicate, existing occupational health provision.
There are two parts to the service: free advice and referral for an occupational health assessment.
Free, impartial and accurate work-related health advice can now be accessed from occupational health professionals via telephone or online through the following routes:
The options available are an online chat to a specialist adviser, emailing of queries or a telephone conversation. There is also a library of advice containing articles on health and work topics.
Broadly, the intention is that through the service the correct support will be provided to employees when a health condition is affecting their job. The support might involve providing information on the type of adjustments that might help them stay in or return to work, or on a more general work-related health advice.
Referral for an occupational health assessment
The scheme provides for employees to be referred for an occupational health assessment in circumstances where the employee has been (or is likely to be) absent from work for more than four weeks due to sickness.
In practice, it is intended that the process will typically operate along the following lines:
Some other points to note about the process are:
- The employee is referred by their GP for an occupational heath assessment by an occupational health professional (employers can also made referrals).
- The employee is then contacted within two working days by telephone and receives an initial assessment. If a face-to-face assessment is deemed necessary, this takes place within five days of that judgment being made.
- The assessment identifies the potential obstacles preventing the employee from returning to work, and a Return to Work Plan is prepared, containing recommendations for assisting the employee's return to work.
- The Return to Work Plan is given to the employee and (with the employee's consent) the employee's employer and GP.
- The case worker contacts the employee to check the plan is on course and again shortly after the employee has returned to work.
- The employee is discharged from Fit to Work after returning to work, or if a point is reached where Fit for Work can no longer assist, or if a return to work has not been possible after three months.
The referral service is not yet in place. it is currently being tested and a phased roll-out is planned during 2015.
- The referral is free.
- Referrals can only take place with the employee's consent.
- There is a tax exemption of £500 per year per employee on medical treatments recommended through Fit for Work or through an employer-arranged occupational health service.
- Employers can accept the Return to Work Plan as evidence of sickness absence in the same way as they would a fit note issued by a GP, and thus need not also ask employees for a fit note.
Benefits of Fit for Work
The Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, said that 'Being in work is good for people's well being and can help them to recover. Fit for Work will help employers and their staff to manage sickness absence and aid the return to work process, and GPs will play a vital role in referring patients they think will benefit from it'. The government envisages that Fit for Work will reduce sickness absence costs by getting employees back to work more quickly, and will in particular benefit small and medium-sized enterprises, which may have only limited access to occupational health services.
In conclusion, while it is not mandatory for employers to refer employees to Fit for Work or progress the recommendations arising through the service, it would be good practice for employers to update their sickness absence policies to recognise its existence. Employers should also consider informing their staff about the existence of Fir for Work and the basics of what is involved.