The Government has started to roll out its new ‘Fit for Work’ referral service which is designed to get employees who are off sick for at least 4 weeks back to work more quickly.  Will it work?

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What services will the Fit for Work Service provide?

The scheme is designed to get employees back to work as soon as possible, in recognition of the fact that the longer someone is off work, the harder it can be to return.  The service will provide:

  • Advice via a free telephone advice line and website to support employees when a health condition is affecting their job; and
  • A free referral to an occupational health professional for employees who are off sick, or are expected to be off sick for four weeks or more.

The referral service is being rolled-out across the county ‘over a period of months’, but the advice service is already up and running with  advice being provided by a team of occupational health professionals.

How does the scheme work?

It has been piloted in some areas, including Leicester whose service has been operational since 2010.  The Leicester service there says that it offers a ‘one stop shop’ and has links to many organisations ‘who can help people with whatever issue is preventing them from being at work’. These include providers of therapy for physical and mental health problems, debt and legal advice, and advice on careers, learning and skills and housing. 

It’s not clear yet whether newly formed Fit For Work services in other areas will be able to offer such a comprehensive service from the outset or will need time to forge links with other organisations.

How does an employee access the scheme?

The advice line is open to employers and employees and offers ‘free, expert and impartial work-related health advice’.  It is contactable by telephone on 0800 032 6235 in England and Wales or via the website: http://fitforwork.org/introducing-fit-for-work/

Referrals for an occupational health assessment will usually be made via an employee’s GP, but employers will also be able to make referrals provided their employees meet the following criteria.

Click here to view table.

GP’s are able to refer earlier or later than four weeks if they believe that an employee will be absent for four weeks and that an earlier or later referral may be beneficial.

How will the assessments take place?

Once a referral has been made the employee will be contacted and the assessment will take place over the telephone unless a face to face assessment is considered necessary. The assessor will then become the employee’s case manager through to the end of the process.

The assessment aims to identify all potential obstacles preventing the employee from returning to work including health, work and personal factors.  A ‘Return to Work Plan’ will then be agreed to address each obstacle and enable a safe and sustained return to work.  The Plan will also contain advice and recommendations as to steps to be taken to help the employee return to work more quickly.

Provided the employee agrees, the Fit for Work case manager can contact the employer when preparing the Return to Work Plan.  Employers will usually be provided with a copy of the Return to Work Plan.

  1. The decision about whether to implement any recommendations made in a Return to Work plan remains with the employer or (depending on the nature of the recommendation) the employee her/himself or his/her GP.
  2. An employer can accept the Return to Work Plan as evidence of sickness absence in exactly the same way as a GP fit note and does not have to ask the employee to obtain further fit notes.

The Department for Work and Pensions has published three guidance notes for employers, GPs and employees, on the new service which can be accessed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/fit-for-work-guidance

Important restrictions

The service can only be used for employees who have ‘a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work’.  Terminally ill patients or those in the acute phase of a medical condition will not usually be eligible.  For those members of staff, employers should continue to make occupational health referrals in the usual manner.

Do employers have to use the Fit for Work Scheme?

No.  It is not mandatory for employers to refer employees to the scheme, nor to implement the recommendations highlighted in the Return to Work Plan. 

The scheme aims to compliment, rather than replace existing services that employers already offer.

Tax exemption available

As an additional incentive and as part of introducing the scheme, the Government has introduced a tax exemption of up to £500 per employee per tax year in relation to medical treatments which are recommended to help employees return to work and which the employer funds.  This applies to all treatments – not just those recommended by the Fit for Work professional.

Do employers need to take any action now?

Employers could consider updating sickness absence policies to reflect the availability of the Fit for Work Scheme, but aren’t obliged to do so.

Is the service likely to be successful?

The Leicester pilot scheme boasts some successful outcomes, but it remains to be seen whether this will be replicated once the scheme is rolled out across the country.  Following a tender process, the national contract to provide Fit for Work Services across the UK has been awarded to Health Management Ltd.

It is certainly worth exploring but much may ultimately be determined by the quality of advice and availability of treatment and the extent to which employees consent to the Return to Work Plan being shared with their employer, which is not guaranteed. 

In the short term, I suspect many employers may prefer to stick with their existing occupational health providers, especially if those arrangements are working well.