Earlier this year the Government unveiled details of a new scheme that would save employers money and help tackle long-term sickness absence in the workplace.  Figures from 2011 estimated that sickness costs UK employers £9 billion a year.

The Government plans to set up an independent assessment and advisory service to help small companies who do not have access to an occupational health service and have no more detailed occupational health assessment of their employees sickness beyond the opinion of the employee’s GP.

They believe that supporting employees on sick leave to return to the workplace as soon as possible is crucial to stop short-term sickness developing into longer-term benefit dependency – they believe that the longer someone is on sick leave, the less likely it is they will return to work and that their chances of becoming dependent upon benefits increases.

The Government have been running ‘Fit to Work’ pilot centres since March 2011 – more details of what geographical areas covered are here.

These pilot programmes have been evaluated and it was found that they successfully reached employers and employees in small and medium-sized businesses, and addressed a genuine need for  professional occupational health expertise.

Evidence gathered from employers about the impact of the services found that:

  • Employers were reassured the services could confirm that a proposed course of action was along the right lines
  • They assisted employees to return to work and, thereby, reduce staff absence
  • They made adaptations to the workplace in order to retain staff
  • They reduced intermittent staff absence
  • They felt better equipped to deal with future employee health issues

Over the past year, the advice service in England alone has offered occupational  health information and advice to more than 21,000 people through its website and telephone lines.

The occupational health advice services pilots were scheduled to finish on 31st March 2013. However, the Government will continue to fund them for a further year until the new Health and Work Assessment and Advisory Service is launched.

The new advisory service will offer expert advice to help employers manage sickness absence. The service will be free and offer independent, objective assessment by occupational health professionals, on when and in what circumstances employees can return to work after a period of sickness absence.

The service will provide an occupational health assessment after four weeks of sickness absence, and will provide advice for employers, employees and GPs throughout the sickness absence process. At the core of the service is the requirement that GPs will refer those patients who have been on sick leave for four weeks to the new service, unless there are very clear and well- defined reasons for not doing so.

If an employee has not been referred to the service at the four-week point and the employer does not feel the information provided by the GP on the fit note is sufficiently clear or helpful, they may refer the employee to the service themselves.

Employees will be assessed and after the assessment, a report will be shared with the employee, employer and GP outlining how best to enable a return to work. The GP and employee will receive the same information while the employer version may be slightly amended to reflect the sensitive nature of medical information.

The Government expect the annual cost of the service to fall between £25 million and £50 million and that around 560,000 absentees will use it every year. It will employ occupational health nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, occupational physicians and other appropriate experts.

The Service is expected to be set up in 2014.

If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues then talk to us at The HR Kiosk (click here) – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – you can retain us for as much time as you need.

Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.

Photo by Jasleen Kaur