In early 2013, the Government unveiled details of a scheme aimed to 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 new scheme – Fit for Work – went live nationwide on 8th September 2015.

This free scheme will be available in England, Scotland and Wales.

The new advisory service will offer expert Occupational Health 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.

Also the Government has introduced a new tax exemption of up to £500 per employee per year, for medical treatment that the new service, or another Occupational Health professional, recommends to help employees return to work. To qualify, an employee must have been off sick for at least 28 consecutive days. Under existing tax rules, the cost of medical treatment funded by an employer is liable for tax – as a benefit in kind or a payment of earnings – and National Insurance Contributions may be due.

How the new service works

1. A website and telephone service

This service is up and running now to offer general health and work-related health advice. This is available to anyone living in the UK and is free.

In England and Wales the website is www.fitforwork.org – there is support via live-chat, email or phone.  The phone number is 0800 032 6235, open from 8.30am – 6pm (and a Welsh language service on 0800 032 6233).

In Scotland the website is www.fitforworkscotland.scot – again support via live chat, email or phone.  The phone number is 0800 019 2211, open from 9am – 5pm.

2. Referrals to the Fit for Work Service

By Autumn 2015 the referral service should be fully operational across the country.  Employees who have been off sick for 4 weeks or more can be referred to the service by their employer or GP for a free Occupational Health Assessment (with the employee’s consent), which will usually result in a ‘Return to Work Plan’.

Referrals made by GPs can be made earlier (or later) than 4 weeks into the employees sickness absence.

Employees can only be referred if they have a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work. Those who do not have a reasonable prospect of returning to work, those who are terminally ill or in an acute phase of their medical condition, those who are in-hospital patients or those with long term sickness absence are unlikely to be referred).

Employees can only be referred to the Service once in every 12 months.

Employers are not obliged to use the Fit for Work service.

The Referral service is not available for those who are self-employed, unemployed or those with short spells of sickness.

3. Assessments

Fit for Work will employ registered Occupational Health Professionals. Once an employee has been referred to the service, Fit for Work aims to contact the employee within two working days to make an assessment by telephone.

Face-to-face assessments, if necessary (but likely to be rare), will take place within five working days of this decision. Fit for Work will pay reasonable travel costs for the employee to attend face-to-face assessments (which should be within 90 minutes travelling time by public transport of the employees home).

The Occupational Health professional assessing the employee’s health will become their Case Manager and will take a holistic approach to look at all the health, work and personal / social issues that may affect the employees ability to return to work.

The assessment is intended to:

  • Identify anything that may prevent an employees return to work
  • Agree a Return to Work Plan between the employee and the Case Manager. The Plan will state whether the employee is fit to work, or may be fit to work if the employer follows the recommendations / actions in the Plan. The Plan may also contain recommendations / actions for the employee or GP to take that would support a return to work
  • With the employee’s consent the Case Manager will contact the employer to assist with the Plan – either to gain a better understanding of the specific workplace content and any limitations or to understand any obstacles to return. The employer and/or GP will be given a copy of the plan by e-mail or web link, with the employee’s consent
  • The Plan may be revised to reflect any changes that are necessary during the process
  • The employer must decide whether to implement any recommendations made in the Plan. Employers will be encouraged to do so, but it is not mandatory. If the employer does not implement the recommendations then the employer must justify why they are not (bearing in mind their obligations to make reasonable adjustments where an employee has a disability)
  • Unfortunately there may be instances where employers are unable to input to, or see, their employee’s Plan (because the employee has not consented to this)  – which may put Employers in a difficult situation

 4. ‘Discharge’ from the Fit for Work Service

The Case Manager will contact the employee to check if the plan is on course after their return to work date. If necessary the Case Manager can arrange a further assessment by Fit for Work if, for example, the employee has not returned to work because the action plan has not / could not be implemented. The Case Manager may contact the Employer if recommendations have not been actioned to ensure they are fully understood.

Generally, an employee will be ‘discharged’ from the Fit for Work service two weeks after they have returned to work.

If this does not happen the employee will be ‘discharged’ when Fit for Work believes they is no further assistance they can give the employee; because the employee has been in the programme for 3 months or more, or where a return to work has not been possible after 3 months.

As the Fit for Work service will not offer a fully comprehensive Occupational Health service, at this point an employer’s ‘traditional’ Occupational Health provider would need to take over in situations where employees are off work for longer than 3 months, or if they go off on sick leave again after returning to work (employees can only be referred to Fit for Work once in each 12 months).

5. Obligations

The parties to the Fit for Work Plan (employees, employers, GPs) will be encouraged to act on the Plan’s recommendations, but they are not obliged to implement them. Fit for Work may provide a facilitation role with the Employer to encourage this if necessary.

6. Plans and Fit Notes

Employers can accept a Plan in place of a GP’s fit-note (sick note) for SSP purposes (and do not need to request a separate fit-note from an employee’s GP).

Fit Notes will be needed to cover the period before a Plan is agreed and issued; or where an employee does not want to share the details of the Plan with their employer.

Other considerations

It is not yet known how thorough the assessments by Fit for Work professionals will be, especially as they will initially be done over the telephone, and the service will no doubt have limited numbers of Occupational Health professionals.

The Government advise that employers sickness and absence policies should be updated to make employees aware of the Service (with relevant telephone and website addresses); to make it clear that Fit for Work plans can be accepted instead of Fit Notes; to make it clear if / when employees will be referred by an employer to Fit for Work; and how Fit for Work Return to Work Plans may be supported.

The Government has published Guidance for Employers, Employees and GP’s which can be found here.

If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues then talk to Lesley at The HR Kiosk – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – our fees are low to reflect the pressures on small businesses and you can hire 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.