The Government has recently introduced a Fit for Work Service (FFW) across Great Britain. This initiative provides free health and work advice through its website and telephone advice line to help employees stay in or return to work. It includes a free referral for an occupational health assessment for employees who have reached, or are expected to reach, four weeks of sickness absence. FFW complements existing occupational health services provided by employers. It is intended to fill the gap in support that currently exists and is intended to especially benefit employers who currently have limited in-house occupational health services. The service has been established on the basis that if everyone has access to more information and assistance from occupational health, those on sickness absence can return to work sooner and avoid being off work for prolonged periods of time which is beneficial for both employees and employers.

The service has two elements:

  • Telephone line/online advice where callers can speak to occupational health professionals and obtain free and impartial advice on different health conditions and possible solutions to help a return to work. This can be accessed by employers, employees and GPs and is free to use.
  • Referrals for an occupational health assessment. At present referrals are only possible through a GP but from Autumn 2015 in England and Wales, and Spring 2015 in Scotland, employers can make a referral to FFW. A referral is for an employee to obtain an occupational health assessment after four weeks’ actual or expected absence if there is a reasonable likelihood of the employee making at least a phased return to work. The employee must consent to the referral. An employer will be able to refer as many eligible employees as it chooses, but each employee can only be referred for one assessment in any 12-month period. The guidance provided by the government states that the assessment will usually be carried out over the phone initially and then face to face if deemed necessary by occupational health.

Another feature of FFW is that there is a beneficial tax exemption where an employer pays for medical treatment for an employee recommended by a healthcare professional as part of either FFW or any employer-arranged occupational health service. The exemption applies to expenditure up to a cap of £500 per employee per tax year. Although the employer still pays the full cost of any treatment there is no charge to income tax or national insurance contributions on payments up to the limit of £500. To be eligible for the tax break, the medical treatment will need to be recommended to help the employee return to work where the employee has been absent for at least 28 days or they have been assessed by a healthcare professional as not fit for work for at least 28 consecutive days.

As employers are encouraged by the government to tell their staff about the FFW service, its introduction is an opportunity for employers to review their sickness absence policies.

For further information on the Fit For Work service please visit 
www.gov.uk/government/collections/fit-for-work-guidance