It is approaching a year ago that the Government announced its intention to reform sickness absence policy. In the intervening months, a new service, “Fit for Work” (FFW), has been developed, along with principles of how the service will operate in practice.

This month, those principles are clarified further by Government Guidance, Fit for Work -Guidance for employers. A helpline became operational from 15 December and a gradual roll out of an assessment service is expected between January and May 2015. Employers need to be aware of the significance of this new approach to sickness absence and be prepared that, from this month, the first they may know of an employee referral to FFW may be upon receipt of a return to work plan.

What is Fit for Work about?

A Government-commissioned report by Dame Carol Black and David Frost in 2011 led to a comprehensive review of sickness absence in the UK, from absence statistics, causes and effects. Several themes were identified including that, after four weeks’ absence, many employees slip into long term absence, despite evidence that early interventions are highly effective in reversing this trend.

In response to these findings, the Government has set up FFW to provide free occupational  health advice and support for employees, employers and GPs. Its specific objective is to help people with a health condition stay in or return to work, through the free telephone and on-line advice service now in operation but also, in due course, an independent health assessment and follow-up after just 4 weeks’ of sickness absence. Assessment will lead to a return to work plan and series of recommendations for employers to facilitate the employee’s return to work, normally sent by e-mail. From that point, the employee will not need a fit note unless or until he or she is discharged from FFW, whether on a return to work or because a return to work has not proved possible after three months.

What employers need to consider

The recent Guidance reflects previous indications of the assessment process, the stages of which were set out in an earlier Eversheds briefing, from telephone assessment through to a return to work plan. Employers need to plan ahead and, as soon as possible, think about:

  • Ensuring managers are equipped to respond to ‘return to work’ recommendations received from FFW. Is training needed? Will you nominate one person as a central point of contact?
  • Understanding whether there might be consequences if recommendations are not acted upon. Co-operation with FFW is entirely voluntary but there may be legal implications if dismissal or disability prove relevant.
  • Revising policies and procedures able to accommodate this change in approach.
  • Considering how (if at all), FFW might it impact upon existing in-house occupational health resource.
  • From 1 January, 2015, a tax exemption will be available for employer expenditure upon recommended medical treatments for employees (subject to maximum relief of £500 per year, per employee).