SMEs are set to benefit from a new government-funded service aimed at reducing UK employers’ annual sick pay costs of £14.2 billion and getting staff back to work more quickly. Artice by Barry Warne, partner and head of employment law at hlw Keeble Hawson
The ‘Fit for Work’ scheme is being rolled out in phases across England and Wales and entails a team of occupational health experts offering free, expert and impartial advice to employers and employees on any work-related health matter.
Aimed at minimising the disruption and financial impact of long-term sickness absence, the voluntary scheme can also help employees to avoid the potentially harmful physical, mental and social consequences of prolonged sick leave.
Anecdotal studies have shown that long-term sick leave is a strong predictor of a future claim for ‘disability pension’, with employees often unlikely to return to the workplace.
A tax exemption of up to £500 per year/per employee is being introduced for businesses to implement medical treatments recommended by Fit for Work and occupational health services professionals in order to help employees to return to work.
The new website and helpline service could prove particularly useful for smaller businesses with limited access to occupational health advice and support – providing occupational health assessments on referral from an employee's GP or employer, where the employee has been absent for at least four weeks.
Once an employee is referred to the service, a Fit for Work adviser will carry out an assessment. The employee will then receive a Return to Work plan with recommendations to help them back to work, which is shared with the employer unless the employee objects. As part of the plan, which also doubles as a sick note, staff are assigned a Fit for Work case manager who can arrange further assessments if necessary.
Employee participation in the scheme is voluntary. Whilst employers should amend their sickness and absence policy to reflect the availability of the scheme, they cannot enforce employee co-operation. If an employee decides not to accept a referral, the employer must note this and log that the option was offered, but rejected.
To help people get the most from the new scheme, the Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) has published three Fit for Work Guidance documents – one for employers, one for staff and third for GPs – which can be downloaded from the gov.uk website.
For more information about the new scheme, including a map showing when and where the service is available, go to http://fitforwork.org