I noticed this interesting report - Pilot Scheme Tackles Long-Term Sickness Absence - on the BBC website the other day and it looks like this important initiative is finally being publicised more widely.

In 2011 the report, Health at work: an independent review of sickness absence, by Dame Carol Black was released by the Government. This report reviewed the health of Britain's working age population and made a number of recommendations to reduce workplace sickness absence and the cost of ill health on individuals, employers and the taxpayer.

The report's main recommendation was for a health and work assessment and advisory service to be introduced, to help those who are absent from work due to sickness to return to work.

According to the Department for Work and Pensions the aim of the new Fit for Work Service (FFWS) is to offer support for people in the early stages of sickness absence and in particular for employees working in small and medium-sized enterprises. The intention is that employers will receive independent advice from the scheme in cases of sickness absence lasting more than four weeks.

At present, apparently less than half of the UK workforce have access to occupational health services. As such, this sort of early intervention does not happen in the majority of cases at present despite the fact that statistics suggest that such early intervention can make a significant difference.

Between April and June 2010 the Government piloted a FFWS in eleven areas of the UK. The purpose of the pilots was to test different approaches to providing the service and getting people back to work as quickly as possible. In April 2011 seven of the pilots received funding for a further two years.

Although the exact manner of delivering the service was different between the various pilot schemes, all of them provided both clinical and non-clinical support to employees to help them to return to work more expeditiously than they otherwise would. The FFWS purposefully addresses not just the physical reasons for an employee's absence from work but also the psychological and social factors. For example Dame Black recommended that advice be given on issues such as debt or difficulty with a line manager which may be affecting an employee's ability to return to work.  One employee, who made use of the pilot FFWS in Leicester, was given access to physiotherapy sessions immediately, as opposed to having to go on an NHS waiting list and was given help in organising a phased return to work. Despite the employee's doctor estimating he would be off work for a few months, the employee, in fact, returned after four weeks.

It is now the Government's intention to role out the FFWS across the UK next year and it is estimated that the scheme could generate yearly net benefits to employers of £65m to £80m and increase economic output by £450m to £900m per year. The Scheme will be funded by the Government albeit it is likely that employers will require to contribute to the cost of certain treatment, helped by a tax break.

If this Scheme is properly resourced and well publicised then my view is that it is likely to make a significant difference and will provide, in particular, SME organisations with a valuable resource that they can call on to assist with absence management issues.