With sick days costing UK business nearly £29 billion each year, and with an estimated 960,000 employees on sick leave for a month or more each year, the government has turned its attention to helping people return to work after an illness. With this in mind, it has recently launched the “Fit for Work” initiative. 

The main component of the regime is the option of a referral to an occupational health (OH) professional for employees who have been off sick, or are likely to be off sick, for four weeks or more. This provision is being rolled out in stages, and is expected to be completed by May 2015.

Referrals can either be made by the employee’s GP, or by the employer. In both cases the employee’s consent will be required. The OH professional will then carry out an assessment of the employee. It is envisaged that in most cases this assessment will take place over the telephone, within two working days of the receipt of the referral.

Following the assessment, the OH professional will produce a tailored Return to Work Plan for the employee. The Plan can only be shared with the employer if the employee consents. 

The Plan may indicate that the employee is “not fit for work” or “may be fit for work” subject to the employer being able to meet certain recommendations. Recommendations might include:  

  • phased return to work
  • changes to start and finish times
  • practical work aids
  • refresher training
  • adapting break times to meet medical needs of employees
  • time off for medical treatments

It is not mandatory for an employer to comply with the recommendations in the Plan per se, but it may be the case that a recommendation would also amount to reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee under the Equality Act 2010.

In addition to the Fit to Work regime, the government also recently launched a tax exemption which provides tax and national insurance relief where an employer funds the costs of medical treatments recommended by a healthcare professional. This could include recommendations under the Fit to Work regime, or any other OH provision that the employer has arranged. This exemption is capped at £500 per employee per tax year.

Practical implications

Employers should consider updating their sickness absence policies and sickness provisions in their employment contracts to take into account the new regime. In particular securing employees consent to a referral to the OH under the initiative and reviewing how the initiative will ‘dovetail’ with the employer’s existing sickness policy.