The government has launched a consultation on ways in which government and employers can take action to reduce ill-health related job loss in the UK.

Despite low unemployment figures, it remains the case that those with ill-health are facing barriers entering and remaining in work. The government reported that while around 8 in 10 non-disabled people are employed, only 5 in 10 disabled people are in work, and disabled people are 10 times more likely to leave work following long-term sickness absence than non-disabled people.

The government is seeking views on a number of proposals which aim to encourage early action by employers to engage with and support employees with long-term health conditions, including:

Changes to the legal framework

Some of the proposals are changes to the legal framework which are designed to encourage employers to intervene early during a period of sickness absence or where an employee experiences ill health and requires support.

One such measure is the right for employees to request work/workplace modifications on health grounds. Currently, under the Equality Act 2010, employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments where an employee has a disability and is placed at a substantial disadvantage as a result of a provision, criterion or practice imposed by the employer, a physical feature of the employer's premises or a failure by the employer to provide an auxiliary aid. The proposed change would allow employees to request modifications for any health reason even where they do not meet the definition of disabled under the Equality Act. The government say this would encourage employers to engage in a dialogue with employees, put in place modifications where possible and respond to the health needs of those not covered by the Equality Act. The employer would be able to refuse a request for workplace modifications on legitimate business grounds – an option not available in respect of reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) reform

The consultation is also seeking views on the reform of the SSP regime so that it is better enforced, more flexible and covers the lowest paid employees. The proposed changes would enable an employee returning from a period of sickness absence to have a flexible, phased return to work while still receiving some SSP. Where a return is phased, the employer would pay the employee the appropriate wage for the days or hours they can work, plus a percentage of SSP for the days or hours that the employee would normally work, but is not well enough to do so.

The government is also consulting on widening access to SSP for those off work who do not currently qualify for it. Under the existing rules those earning below the Lower Earnings Limit (LEL) – which is currently £118 a week – do not qualify for SSP during a sickness absence. As many employees who earn below the LEL earn less than the current rate of SSP, they would be better off when off sick than at work if they were paid at the full rate of SSP. Therefore, the government proposes that those earning below the LEL would be paid a proportion of their wage as SSP with the suggestion this would be set at 80%.

Additionally there are proposals regarding the enforcement of the SSP regime, including an increase of the fines levied when employers fail to pay SSP where it is due. The enforcement of SSP is also an a matter which the government suggest should fall within the remit of its proposed new single labour market enforcement body.

Occupational Health provision

The government is also seeking views on the scope of Occupational Health provision and is considering ways of reducing the costs, increasing market capacity and improving the value and quality of services.

The proposed measures aim to recognise the key role that employers play in assisting employees with disabilities and health conditions to stay at work, and the importance of the employer taking early action during sickness absence. The consultation looks to measure the impact of the proposals on businesses, individuals and the occupational health profession.

The views gathered during the consultation will inform government policy in this area. The consultation will run until 7 October 2019.