Look at new sickness scheme, says legal expert

An expert in employment law has highlighted the benefits to employers of a new government healthcare initiative which will help the management of sickness absence in the workplace.

GPs will be expected to refer patients for a free occupational health assessment, subject to certain conditions, under a new aspect of the existing Fit for Work (FFW) scheme.

Oliver McCann, Employment partner at Lancashire law firm Napthens solicitors in Blackburn, has highlighted the scheme’s benefits and implications which may reduce extended periods of staff absence due to sickness.

Anyone absent from work due to illness for longer than a four week period will be recommended to undergo the new FFW process, which aims to stop people becoming reliant on the welfare system.

Compliance is not mandatory, but those who do agree to be referred will receive a health assessment, and if considered fit to work will receive necessary treatments to enable them to return to employment.

The scheme is being managed by an occupational health company, with the assessment process currently being piloted in 20 surgeries with the intention of being extended nationwide in spring. A telephone and online advice service is already in place.

Oliver said: “The scheme is positive for employers, as it may serve as a deterrent to employees who attempt to play the system and take time off work due sickness without good reason.

“The referral for an occupational health assessment has fixed turn around times, which means employers can deal with issues promptly. Anyone seeking further advice on how this may affect them should contact their legal advisor.”

The Department for Work and Pensions has also issued guidance for employers about the new tax exemption available for the cost of medical care for employees absent due to sickness, with a limit of £500 per employee.

The scheme still requires co-operation from the employee, who cannot be referred without giving their consent. A GP could make a referral without informing the employer, which could affect the accuracy of medical reports which may not build a true picture of the employee’s role if completed without the employer’s input. According to the Office for National Statistics, 131million working days were lost to sickness absence in the UK during 2013.