The DWP has published guidance notes on the new Fit for Work scheme being phased in over 2015, recommending that employers update their sickness absence policies. The Government has said it will confirm the timetable for implementing the scheme shortly.

The scheme will provide for a free referral for an occupational health assessment for employees who have reached, or whose GP expects them to reach, four weeks of sickness absence. Employers can also make a referral after four weeks of absence. Where an employee is referred to Fit for Work for an assessment, the employer may then receive a Return to Work Plan with advice and recommendations (if the employee consents).

The aim is to facilitate a return to work within a three month period and only one referral can be made per 12 months. Provided the employee has consented to sharing the Return to Work Plan with the employer, the employer can accept it as evidence of sickness absence in the same way as a fit note issued by a GP and should not ask for a fit note as well (as GPs are not obliged to issue one in these circumstances). The employee will still need a fit note to cover the period between a referral being made and a Return to Work Plan being issued; the guidance suggests a two week fit note would be sufficient to cover this period in most cases.

The guidance recommends that employers update their sickness absence policies to reflect the availability of Fit for Work (for example, to specify that a Return to Work Plan will mean that further fit notes are not needed for that period).

The guidance states that Fit for Work will complement and not replace any existing occupational health services provided by employers; it will deliver some aspects of an occupational health service but not a fully comprehensive service. If deemed appropriate by the Fit for Work case manager, the employer will be contacted by Fit for Work in order to incorporate any existing occupational health services into the formation of the Return to Work Plan and as a potential facilitator of recommendations within the Plan.

It is not mandatory for an employee to agree to be referred, nor is it mandatory for an employer to implement recommendations made in the Plan, although this may well be considered relevant to the fairness of any subsequent dismissal and to whether there has been a failure to make a reasonable adjustment for disability discrimination purposes.