Work and Health – Case for change

A key objective of the Government has been to reduce absenteeism in the work place and introduce measures aimed at getting employees who have been absent due to sickness back to work sooner.

Statistics in support of their argument demonstrate that nearly a million employees a year reach the four-week sickness absence point and around 300,000 people fall out of work and into the welfare system because of health-related issues.

The cost to the state is immense. Approximately £12bn a year is spent on health-related benefits and £2bn a year in healthcare, sick pay reimbursement and foregone taxes. Employers in the UK face an annual bill of around £9bn for sick pay and associated costs and employees lose £4bn a year through lost earnings.

Clearly improvements were needed. Following extensive consultation with all sectors concerned with work and health, the Health and Work Service was developed. This is a Government-funded work-focused health service designed on the basis of getting people back to work. It will provide an independent and objective occupational health assessment and general health and work advice service to employees, employers and General Practitioners (GPs) to help individuals with a health condition to stay in or return to work.

GPs, employers and employees will be able to access independent and objective advice on issues preventing a sustained return to work and on how to prevent sickness absence occurring. The service is impartial and will complement, rather than replace existing employer occupational health provision.

Due to be launched in December 2014 with a phased roll out until May 2015, the service will provide anyone who has been off work due to sickness absence for 4 weeks with an occupational health assessment. A 2011 independent review of sickness absence indicated four weeks was the appropriate referral point because that is when it becomes more likely that longer term absence will occur and there will be an increased chance of the employee going on to claim benefits.

It has now been confirmed that the Service will be provided by HML (Health Management Limited) in England and Wales, and in Scotland, by the Scottish government.  The Service provided to an individual under the scheme will feature two aspects:

  1. Assessment service: Upon reaching, or in anticipation of four weeks sickness absence, the employee’s GP will make a referral to HML for an assessment, and they will identify any issues which prevent the employee from returning to work, recommendations for treatment and will produce a report detailing a “Return to Work Plan”.  The assessment will be done by phone. A case manager will also be appointed to help facilitate better understanding of any recommendations and required support to the employee.
  2. Advice service: Any health and work advice will be made available to employees, employers and GPs via the phone line and website.

The case manager assigned will support each employee through the service’s assessment process to ensure their level of need is correctly identified along with appropriate steps to take to get them back to work.

Following an assessment, the service will provide a Return to Work Plan which will contain specific advice and recommendations about actions to assist with and make an employee’s return to work faster. The Return to Work Plan will usually be provided to the employee, the employer and the GP and will provide evidence of fitness for work for the purposes of receiving Statutory Sick Pay. Currently, this evidence of fitness for work is provided by a ‘fit note’, issued by a GP.

GP and employer guidance will also explain that where an employer is in receipt of a Return to Work Plan, a GP no longer needs to issue a fit note. An employer will continue to be responsible for decisions about fitness for work and will be able to accept the Return to Work Plan as evidence for this purpose.

It is not envisaged that there will be much involvement initially for employers (e.g. production of reports/Return to Work Plan).  However, employers must have a clear process in place which allows them to take reasonable steps in dealing with any sickness and absence issues, ensuring employees are supported, irrespective of whether they make their own occupational health service referrals or rely on the Government’s scheme.

If any of your employees have been off work due to sickness absence for over a month, please speak to your HR Consultant who will advise on the appropriate steps to take.

Sally Grundy, HR Consultant, Alcumus Group