Sickness absence: What will 'fit for work' mean for employers?

Every year 130 million days are lost due to sickness absence which costs the UK economy a startling £100 billion.

Sally Eastwood, Employment Solicitor at Farleys, looks at the government’s new scheme to tackle workplace sickness absence and how it will impact employers.

A government report into sickness absence in the work place revealed that between September 2010 and October 2013 960,000 employees were absent from work due to sickness for a month or more. High rates of employee absence are a concern for employers and business owners due to the significant costs and resource disruption.

Following a major review into workplace sickness absence in 2011 a number of recommendations were made. One key recommendation is to create a government-funded occupational health assessment service for employees that are absent from work due to sickness for 4 weeks or more which is expected to be introduced this year. The aim of the assessment is to help employees return to work at the earliest opportunity following an illness as well as offering both employers and employees assistance and advice concerning sickness absence in an attempt to reduce costs to both businesses and the tax payer.

Private company Health Management Limited have been selected to provide the “Fit For Work” service which is expected to fully implement the service over the coming months. The “Fit for Work” service will provide the following:

  • An occupational health assessment will be scheduled when an employee reaches, or is expected to reach, more than 4 weeks’ sickness absence. This will usually come via a referral made by the employee’s GP.
  • A return to work plan that will be shared with the employer and GP.
  • Each employee will be allocated their own individual case manager to support them through the assessment process to ensure their level of need is correctly identified along with the appropriate steps to help them return to the workplace.
  • Employers, employees and GPs will have wider access to general health and work advice via the telephone and a website.
  • Where the employee is undergoing medical treatment following the recommendation of the “Fit for Work” service or an employer arranged occupational health service they will receive a tax exemption of up to £500 on payments.
The introduction of the “Fit for Work” service will not involve any formal changes to the law and will only be implemented where it compliments an employer’s existing capability and sickness absence procedures. However, concerns have been raised about the suitability of the procedures. Perhaps the most significant is the quality of the service to be provided. For example, it has been suggested that some interviews will take place by telephone rather than face to face. Some employees may not feel comfortable discussing sensitive issues on the phone.