The UK Government’s new, free occupational health service, Fit For Work (FFW) began its roll out on Monday this week.  The aim of FFW is to provide assistance to employers and employees and reduce the amount of long term sickness absence from work. 

FFW is initially only available in the Bristol and Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board areas, but is expected to be nationwide by Autumn 2015.  Although there are no firm roll out dates for any other areas yet, FFW has published a roll out map, which will be regularly updated. 

How Does it Work? 

Both GPs and employers are able to refer eligible employees to FFW for a free occupational health assessment.  In order to be eligible, an employee must 

  • Consent to the referral
  • Have been absent from work for at least four weeks
  • Have at least a reasonable prospect of returning to work
  • Not have had a FFW referral in the preceding 12 months
  • Be employed. 

GPs are able to refer employees to FFW before they have been absent for four weeks if they believe that the employee is likely to be absent for at least that amount of time. 

Once the referral has been made, FFW will contact the employee within two days to conduct a telephone assessment and assign a case worker.  In more complex cases, a face to face assessment may be scheduled. 

The case worker will then prepare a return to work plan that will be sent to the employee and, with the employee’s consent, the employer.  FFW may also contact the employer if it thinks that would be helpful. 

Employees will then be discharged from FFW following one of either 

  • A return to work (including on a phased basis)
  • A period of three months, if a return to work has not been possible
  • FFW no longer being able to assist with a return to work. 

Tax Exemption 

In addition, the government has announced a tax exemption for the provision of up to £500 (per employee, per tax year) for medical treatment for an employee as either a part of FFW or any employer-arranged occupational health service. 

In order to qualify for the exemption, the treatment must have been recommended by a health care professional and the employee must either have been absent for at least 28 consecutive days due to ill health or injury, or have been assessed by a health care professional as not fit for work for the same amount of time. 

What Changes Should Employers Make to Existing Practices? 

The use of FFW is not mandatory and employers are not required to engage with FFW professionals, or follow their recommendations. 

If an employer did ignore FFW recommendations, however, it would run the same risk as ignoring occupational health recommendations, i.e., a potential breach of the implied term of trust and confidence, and/or a failure to make reasonable adjustments in the context of disability discrimination. 

It is therefore advisable to consider how your business intends to make use of, and interact with, FFW and review existing sickness absence policies and procedures if appropriate. 

As FFW will only operate with employee consent, it will not be possible to require employees to participate, although you might want to make payment of enhanced sick pay conditional on the employee taking all reasonable steps to get back to work, including participating in FFW or going to occupational health. 

Comment 

The introduction of the FFW scheme should be welcomed by employers and employees alike.  It is likely to be of particular benefit to small and medium sized employers who may not have their own occupational health team. 

For employers who already have and use occupational health, consideration should be given to how that existing facility will interact with FFW.  Given that FFW will discharge an employee after three months, regardless of their situation, it is unlikely to be of much real assistance in cases of serious illness. 

Employers may also be wary of being “stuck” with a return to work plan drawn up by a health care professional who does not know the employer’s business and working practices, and who may have only conducted a relatively short telephone assessment with the employee, during which much will have been taken at face value.  On the other hand, referral to a private occupational health team may be disproportionate in certain cases.