The New Fit for Work Service – top 10 questions answered

Managing sickness absence

 10 key things you need to know about the new Government’s Fit for Work Service

An Overview

Sickness absence is reported as losing UK businesses 130 million work days per year.  So managing absence costs in your business is vital.  And every business knows,  it is not just the cost of SSP or sick pay, but the negative impact unplanned absences have on productivity, performance and the team.

Reported to have cost 170 million to implement, the new Government’s Fit for Work Service has been designed to offer free support to employers and employees.  The focus is to aid people who are off work due to ill health – back into paid work.

It is envisaged it will be of most use to SMEs who do not have their own occupational health service to help manage absences.  Yet there seems to be many restrictions in how the service can be used which will make it less useful to its target audience – us SMEs.

Most notably the four week wait for the Referral Service.  This means an employer will not be able to access this part of the service to manage the intermittent and persistent absences, which are so disruptive and costly to a business.  And, many SMEs will need to manage a potentially longer term absence before this time. This is due to the fact that we SMEs just do not have the resources to cover absences in the same way as larger businesses.

It also seems to be focused on providing a more virtual service by telephone, so only time will see how sufficient and effective this will be.  Finally, many reports indicate it will be a ‘one size fits all’ service regarding the recommendations made.  Whilst larger businesses may find the recommended plan easy to implement (as they have the resources) SMEs may struggle to do the same.  And, a report commissioned by the Dept. Work and Pensions (October 2014) only saw 36% of GPs likely to use the service and refer a patient anyway.

If this is all so, how useful will this new service be to a SME in helping them to manage absences?   I think only time will tell.  However, it is a free resource so here is what I feel are the  10 key things you should to know about this new free Government service.

1.  So first – What is it?

depositphotos_5422513-3d-small---way-choiceA free telephone helpline service manned by a team of Occupational Health Professionals (0800 032 6235) Which is available to you now.

And whilst we may all Google illnesses, the answers given are not always based on fact.  The website will give you free access to reliable information:   http://fitforwork.org/introducing-fit-for-work/.  

And eventually, you will be able to access the Occupational Health Referral Service (being rolled out across 2015).  This will offer a free personal referral to an occupational health professional.  You will need to check when available in your area.

It is also important to note that the scheme has been designed with the aim to get employees back to work (and off sick pay/state benefits).  This is because it is widely acknowledged that the longer a person is off work, the more likely they will never return to paid work and remain on state benefits.

So many feel it is not specifically focused to help resolve the difficulties a SMEs may have in managing sickness absence in their business. However, as the ultimate aim is to get an individual back to work, it may align to also meet these needs.

It is also being marketed as a ‘one stop shop’ .  The aim is to provide useful links to other organisations who will help with whatever issue is preventing an employee from returning to work’.  Obviously, it will include providers of therapies for physical and mental health problems. But it also will provide access to debt, legal, careers, learning, housing and skills advice.

2.  How do you access the Referral Service?

It will be via your employee’s GP, with your their consent.  Either after 4 weeks’ or at any point if the GP considers the sickness absence will be for longer than 4 weeks.

If not referred by the GP you, as the employer, can only refer your employee (again with their consent) after 4 weeks’ sickness absence.   It is also important to note that the Referral Service can only be accessed if a person has not already been referred for an assessment within the last 12 months and received a Return to Work Plan. And only if there is a reasonable likelihood of a phased return to work.

3.  What will a Return to Work plan contain? 

The Occupational Health Professional will undertake a Fit for Work Assessment and  suggest a plan to help an earlier return to work.   A clear timeframe will be set of when the steps of the plan should be implemented.

Note:  You can also accept a Return to Work Plan in lieu of a Fit Note for Statutory Sick Pay purposes.

4.  Do you have to do what they say?

No. You are not forced to comply with any of the recommendations made.  The decision lies with you whether to implement any of the recommendations given.

However, as the Government states “all parties should act upon the recommendations given within a Fit for Work Plan” what happens if you don’t.   I wouldn’t suggest anyone dismiss the plan without having a very good business reason for doing so.  There is a real risk this could be used against you at a Tribunal.

It is also important to remember your duties under the Equality Act 2010 in respect of disabled employees.  In particular, the duty to make reasonable adjustments as it is considered a Tribunal may well consider any recommendations contained in a Return to Work Plan as a reasonable adjustment.  Therefore it is also not very helpful that reports state the Return to Work Plan will not advice you if the individual would be considered disabled.

Finally, it has been stated that following the recommendations within the Plan will offer you no automatic protection from an unfair dismissal claim.  It is hoped, however, that ultimately a Tribunal will take the fact that an employer implemented– or were willing to implement the plan into account. But again, only time and case law will see if they do.

5. Do you have to have consent?

Yes. Your employee is under no obligation to participate with any part of this scheme.  Quite simply, without their express consent at every stage of the process, it just does not proceed.

If your employee chooses to refuse consent, for whatever reason, there is also no immediate sanction that can be taken.  However, it is again hoped a Tribunal will ultimately take this into account, if you end up dismissing your employee, but again only time and case law will see.

6. How often can the service be accessed?

The telephone helpline and information provided on the web site can be accessed as often as you like. A referral and an assessment by an Occupational Health professional can only be made once in any 12-month period for each employee.

It is also important to re-emphasis,  the referral service is also only accessible if there is a reasonable likelihood of the individual returning to work, or a phased return to work.  For instance anyone who is terminally ill or in the acute phase of a medical condition will not usually be eligible.

7.  So how does a referral work?

Once a referral has been made, unless it is considered a face to face meeting is necessary, your employee will be assessed by telephone.  The Assessor appointed will then become your employee’s Case Manager and the point of contact until the end of the process.
The aim of the assessment is to identify any potential barriers that are preventing your employee returning to work – and how they may be overcome.

The report will include current health issues and limitations – and how their current health impacts on their ability to carry out their normal duties.   It may also include personal factors that may be a contributory factor to the absence/illness.

The overall aim is to agree a ‘Return to Work Plan’ that will address each obstacle to enable a safe and sustained return to work.  The Plan will contain advice and recommendations as to the steps that can be taken to help your employee return to work.

From the information provided so far about the referral service, it seems that detailed advice on a medical condition will not be provided.  It would seem the report will take a more broad holistic approach with the focus on how any barriers can be reduced within the workplace that are preventing an individual returning to work.

8.  Tax incentives – what are they?

In January 2015 the Government announced there would be tax incentives integral to the scheme.  Before you get too excited, it is only a tax exemption of up to £500 (per tax year, per employee) on any medical treatments recommended and implemented that helped your employee return to work.  This can include any treatments recommended as part of a Fit for Work plan, or recommendations from your own occupational health service.

To qualify your employee must have been absent from work for at least 28 consecutive days due to ill health or injury.  Or have been assessed by a healthcare professional as not fit for work (or may not be) for at least 28 consecutive days.

9.  What if you already use an Occupational Health Service?

Fit for Work is not designed to replace any existing occupational health service operated by you.  It is aimed at complementing any existing services.  If a Fit for Work Case Manager is appointed then they may contact your current occupational health adviser when preparing any Return to Work Plan as part of an assessment.

10.  What should you do?

If you have no current absences, why not have a look to see if there is anything useful on the website, and when the Referral Service will be available in your area.

If you have a current absence, due to ill health, then why not try the telephone service to see if any use.  And, if the Referral Service is available in your area, and the absence qualifies, why not speak with your employee and their GP.

You do need to also amend both your Capability and Attendance procedures.  If you are a Retainer client of HRSfB then I will have done this for you.

 So will SMEs find this new service fit for purpose?

I hate to repeat myself, but I truly feel only time will tell if this will be a useful tool to help SMEs manage sickness absence in their business.  However on the face of it the mechanics of this service do not seem to align with the needs and resources of SMEs.  And do you remember how the Fit Notes were supposed to aid getting people back into work?  In most cases it was of very little actual help.

Run by Health Management Ltd, the Leicester pilot was reported a success.  But it remains to be seen whether this will be replicated once the scheme is rolled out across the country.  It will also depend on your employees engaging with the service and providing their consent, which is not guaranteed.   And there is no doubt the limitations are restrictive and focused more on getting people back into work, than supporting SMEs manage absences due to ill health within their business.

On the other hand it is free, so an option to consider.  But I personally cannot see how it will replace appointing your own professional occupational health support who will proactively help you manage absence and the cost of absence in your business.

And much will be determined by the quality of the advice given.  And how bespoke it is to the individual circumstances of both the employee and employer.

What else is there that can help you manage absence in your business?

Research supports a strong Attendance procedure with structured Back to Work Meetings and a supportive Capability procedure can, when combined, be the most effective way of managing and reducing overall absences in a business.

We can help you implement all these just call.   And we have many trusted occupational health associates that will provide a range of professional health advice bespoke to the needs of both your employee and your business.

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About Carole Thomson

Following 16 years implementing HR solutions for businesses I founded HR Support for Business. Designed to be a one stop trusted HR Resource centre for small and medium businesses. Working locally or virtually we can be your HR team member when you need us. Or give SMEs access to tried and trusted HR contracts, policies and documentation. A self service HR resource to make it easier for SMEs to manage their people and save time and money in development and management time.

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