Employers can now refer staff to ‘Fit for Work’ to help combat long-term sickness absences

9th September, 2015

Employers in England and Wales, who face lengthy staff sickness absences, are now able to refer employees to the government’s Fit for Work service.

The Fit for Work service has been operating in Scotland since December 2014 and was rolled out in England and Wales since the beginning of this summer. Until yesterday however, only GPs were able to refer patients for the service.

As reported in a previous Be Wiser Business Insurance article, sickness absences cost the UK economy approximately £16 billion annually and according to an independent review of sickness absence – commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – at least £9 billion of this can be attributed financial costs incurred directly by employers and the indirect costs of managing sickness absence.

The independent review by Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE – entitled Health at Work - an independent review of sickness absence, found that around 140 million working days are lost to sickness absence every year, but due to barriers faced by those with long-term health issues, a significant number of absences were longer than they need to be.

According to the DWPs statistics, around 870,000 absences a year in England and Wales last for four weeks or more. A YouGov poll in 2013 revealed that just under a third (31%) of workers were employed by companies that offered no occupational health support.

Fit for Work was designed by the DWP to address these issues and to assist small and medium sized businesses (SMEs), which employ a large proportion of the workforce, but enjoy limited or no occupational health support.

Within two working days of being referred to the Fit for Work service, absent employees receive an in-depth, telephone-based consultation by an occupational health professional.

During the consultation the occupational health professional explores all the issues that might be preventing a return to work, including all work-related and wider personal issues, as well as health matters.

Following the consultation, a personalised return to work plan is agreed with the employee, which aims to get them back into the workplace as soon as possible.

It is hoped that the new employee referral service will help businesses reduce the impact of long-term sickness absence and help them to reduce their sick pay costs and associated expenses.

Co-author of the independent Health at Work review and former director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, David Frost CBE, commented:

“The evidence is clear – the longer a person is out of work the harder it becomes to make a successful return to their job.”

“Employers have asked for a service that will provide rapid access for their employees to get practical advice on the support they need to make a return to work.”

“Now Fit for Work has launched, all employees and employers across the country have access to free occupational health advice and support for the very first time. The service will provide much needed support, particularly to small businesses.”

Research shows that 63% of employees who have been off work for four weeks or more in England and Wales feel that with more external help they could have returned to work earlier following a prolonged period of sick leave.

However, research also suggests more than half of employers worry about contacting their sick employees in case they feel pressurised.

The Fit for Work employee referral service will hopefully prove to be a valuable tool for employers going forwards.