Although some employment issues come and go (depending upon business activities and the wider economy), the management of absence appears to be a constant frustration for many organisations. In relation to long-term absence (generally absences of 4 weeks or more), the government has developed the Fit for Work initiative.
As many employers do not have access to occupational health services, this service is aimed at bridging this gap and critically, in helping to facilitate employees back to work at an earlier stage. As the number of employees off work for 4 weeks or more was reported (by the Government) to be over 1 million in the last year, it is not difficult to see the benefits of trying to tackle this issue.
The main features
- The service operates an advice line and also a referrals system.
- Employees who have been or are likely to be off work for a period of 4 weeks or more, can with their consent, be referred to the Fit for Work service by their GP or employer. An employee can only be referred once a year.
- There are schemes up and running in England and Wales and in Scotland. The only difference between the service north and south of the border is that since August 2015, the Scottish service is phone-based in terms of referrals, with an online form due to go live late Autumn. The English and Welsh service has been fully operational from 8th September 2015.
- Once referral has taken place, the employee will be contacted within 24 hours and receive an in-depth telephone consultation with an occupational health professional.
- A case manager then tries to identify obstacles to returning to work, takes specialist advice as required and develops a return to work plan if possible.
- The employee does not need to share this plan with the GP and/or employer and can withdraw from the process at any stage.
Employers are also not obliged to follow the recommended plan but it would be best practice to do so if it is reasonable.
Referral is free of charge. Employees can request an Access to Work grant towards help (at present uncapped with the amount dependent upon individual circumstances) and employers can apply for a £500 tax exemption per employee per annum, to assist with interventions recommended by the service.
- The choice to use or not use the service does not affect an employee’s entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay. An agreed and shared back to work plan can be taken as an alternative to a fit note (once an employee has been in the process for 2 weeks to a maximum of 12 weeks). However, to complicate matters, the employee does need a fit note for the initial referral and assessment time and if an employee comes off the plan before they actually go back to work, they would need a fit note for the remaining period of absence.
Given the lack of publicity surrounding this service, the ability of an employee to opt out and an employer to choose not to follow recommended plans, it remains to be seen whether this service will succeed in helping the majority of employees back to work. However, if you currently have a long-term absence case on your plate or there is one looming, it could be worth giving this new service a try.
If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Wendy Meiklejohn.