The Government has launched an occupational health service aimed at reducing the number of employees on long-term sickness absence. The Fit for Work service (FFW) is intended to be rolled out nationwide by May 2015. 

What is Fit For Work?

FFW is a government-funded service designed to make occupational health assessments and advice more readily available for employees and their employers. FFW has two functions: 

  • a website and telephone advice service which provides guidance on health-related issues. The website can be accessed here
  • a referral service which offers occupational health assessments designed to help employees return to work.

The Department for Work and Pensions has published further guidance on the service. Click here to view it. 

How does the referral system work?

This service is currently being rolled out. It is intended to work as follows:

The referral process: 

Click here to view flow chart.

What action should employers take? 

  • Consider how FFW ties in with your sickness absence management policies and procedures. You may need to amend them, for example to reflect changes to the requirements for the provision of fit notes. You should also be aware that there is a new tax exemption of up to £500 per employee per year for medical treatment recommended to help employees to return to work, whether under FFW or by another OH professional.
  • Update line managers and HR colleagues to ensure that, should a FFW Plan be put forward for an employee following a GP referral, they are aware of the implications. 
  • Where an employee has been off sick for more than four weeks and the GP has not made a referral, consider whether it may be appropriate to make a referral directly to FFW (although given the limitations with the service, this may not provide a satisfactory alternative to instructing your own OH advisors). 

BLP Comment

It is too early to tell how successful the service will be in reducing the number of employees off with long-term sickness. We envisage it will be more helpful for small- and medium-sized employers who do not have easy access to their own occupational health team. However, in spite of its laudable intentions, all employers will have a number of concerns, including: 

  • Unhelpful Plans. Most plans are expected to be drawn up on the basis of a telephone assessment only and can be agreed with no reference at all to the employer in advance. Is it realistic to expect case workers to understand the nature of the employer’s business, and in particular, the role of the sick employee? Without this knowledge, there is a chance that the Plan might contain unreasonable or unworkable suggestions; 
  • Interaction with reasonable adjustments. Whilst it is not mandatory for employers to use the service, or observe its recommendations, what will the position be in Tribunal where an employer has refused to do so? 
  • Conflicting advice. There may also be contradictions between the advice given by the case worker and by the employer’s own OH provider, where both are involved. While employers are likely to want to instruct their own advisers, employees may be uncooperative if they feel the suggestions made are less favourable than those in their FFW Plan;
  • Efficacy for complex matters. Employees are discharged from the FFW scheme after a relatively short period of time, meaning that it is unlikely to resolve more complex absence issues.