The new Fit for Work service is aimed at complementing existing occupational health services provided by employers and to fill the gap in support that currently exists.
The new service will provide free health and work advice through its website and telephone advice line, and free referrals for an occupational health assessment for employees who have reached four weeks of sickness absence.
So how will the new service work?
The Fit for Work service can be contacted online or by telephone as many times as required. The advice lines will give employees, employers and GPs advice about work-related health matters and sickness absences and help employers identify adjustments that could help an employee remain in, or return to, work.
Where an employee has reached (or is expected to reach) four weeks' absence, employers and GPs can make use of the free referral system to an occupational health service.
Step one: Referral
It is expected that referrals will usually be made by GPs; however employers are welcome to make referrals provided the employee has consented.
An employer can refer any number of their eligible employees to the service but an employee may only be referred for one assessment in any 12 month period.
Step two: Assessment and Return to Work Plan
Once a referral has been made by an employer or GP, the Fit for Work service will arrange for an assessment to take place. Assessments will usually be over the phone, with face to face assessments only being undertaken when necessary.
The purpose of the assessment is to identify all possible obstacles preventing the employee's return to work, including health, work and personal factors. The employee and the case manager will consider these factors and agree a Return to Work Plan to address each obstacle, with the Return to Work Plan replacing the need for a fit note.
Case managers may ask employers to assist with Return to Work Plans if the employee consents. Guidance suggests case managers will only seek to contact employers where they need a better understanding of the workplace and any limitations which the employee cannot provide, or where the employee's relationship with the employer is identified as an obstacle to a return.
Step three: Implementing Return to Work Plan
Return to Work Plans will, where appropriate, include a timetable for progressing interventions and for returning to work. Whilst employers are encouraged to act on the recommendations, it does remain for the employer to decide whether to implement any recommendations.
Case managers will contact employees at arranged points to check if the plan is working. If recommendations have not been implemented, the case manager may contact the employer to make sure that any recommendations have been fully understood.
A tax exemption of up to £500 on medical treatments recommended to help employees return to work has been introduced to assist employers and encourage them to implement recommendations.
Step four: Discharge from the service
Employees will be discharged from the service two weeks after they have returned to work or when the service decides that there is no further assistance they can offer. The service will decide that no further assistance can be offered where the employee has been with the service for three months or where the service decides that the employee will be unable to return to work for three months or more.
Thoughts for employers
The new Fit for Work service is a useful service for all employers; providing employers with readily accessible occupational health professionals and the opportunity to seek guidance as and when required.
Managing sickness absences can be tricky, especially when dealing with disabled employees, and long term absences can have a significant effect on companies that have a small or specialised workforce. Utilising the Fit for Work service will help employers manage their absent employees and hopefully get them back to work more quickly.
Employers should read the new guidance documents published by the Department for Work and Pensions, so that they are fully abreast with the new service and are able to utilise it to its full extent.