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Fit for purpose? The new Fit for Work scheme

27 July 2015

It is estimated that annually more than 130 million days are lost to sickness absence at a cost to the economy of around £15 billion. Employers face an estimated annual bill of around £9 billion for loss of production and sick pay costs.

Following a consultation, the government’s Fit for Work service began its national rollout in March this year. Initially it was expected to be completed by late May 2015 but it is now more likely to be towards the end of 2015.

The scheme has two key elements:

Assessment service

Once the employee has reached, or is expected to reach, four weeks of sickness absence, their GP will refer them for an assessment by an occupational health professional. Employers will also be able to make a referral after four weeks of absence.

The assessment will identify issues preventing the employee from returning to work and provide recommendations for treatment and advice on graduated return to work programmes. In most cases the result will be a Return to Work plan which will contain advice and recommendations to help bring the employee back into the workplace. These plans will replace the GP fit note currently used to certify an employee’s absence from work.

Advice service

This element connects employers, employees and GPs via a phone line and an interactive website. The advice service is already up and running – it was launched in December last year when the Fit for Work website went live. Trials of this service have already taken place with relatively positive feedback.

The process sounds straightforward, but several experts have expressed reservations about the scheme, predicting a number of issues that could arise once the service is rolled out more widely.

For now, the Fit for Work scheme is merely a source of information and a means of quickly and easily obtaining free advice from occupational health professionals. Managing sickness absence is a sensitive and difficult issue and certainly a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work. The real test will come when the referral service is rolled out nationwide. Will employers actually make use of the service? Will it be able to cope, or will it buckle under the weight of enquiries? Will the quality of Return to Work plans make them more of a hindrance than a help?

The Fit for Work scheme will be something employers have to welcome and embrace. Employers should consider whether their absence policies need to be updated and whether their sick pay terms should be amended to reflect the new scheme.

Matthew Clayton leads the 4-person employment team at Willans and has 18 years’ experience in handling a full range of employment law issues for multi-national companies, owner-managed businesses and not-for-profit organisations. 

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Matthew Clayton MA LLM (Cantab), CIPP/E
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