A recent review of sickness absence in Great Britain identified that a lack of access to occupational health services, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses, was a significant issue in preventing employees from returning to work. As we mentioned in our article earlier this year, the Government has responded by introducing the relatively unknown ‘Fit for Work’ service (http://fitforwork.org/) which is due to launch this month with a phased roll-out due to complete by May 2015.
This service, provided by Health Management Limited on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, aims to help employees and employers manage sickness absence and reduce the length of time employees take off sick which, in turn, should cut sick pay costs.
There are two aspects to ‘Fit for Work’:
– An advice service which is live now where employers, employees and GPs can access a telephone helpline and website
– An assessment service which will be rolled out on a regional basis, to be completed by May 2015.
In order to access the assessment part of the service, employees will normally be referred by their GP when they reach, or are expected to reach, more than 4 weeks’ sickness absence. They will then undergo an occupational health assessment and a resulting return to work plan will then be shared with both their employer and their GP. Our current understanding of the service is that most assessments will be over the telephone and only in certain circumstances will a face to face meeting be recommended. The telephone assessment should take place within two working days of the referral and last between 45 minutes and an hour.
In order to entice employers to use the scheme or other occupational health services, the Government are introducing a tax exemption of up to £500 a year per employee for medical treatments recommended by this new service or an employer-arranged occupational health service. Normally, a payment of this nature would be treated as a taxable benefit in kind, liable to income tax and employer National Insurance contributions.
The value of this service remains to be seen; however there are already a number of issues we are aware of which could limit its effectiveness:
– Fit for Work is a voluntary service and requires consent from all parties concerned. An employee could refuse to consent to the referral, which would put an end to the process. Employees cannot be forced to attend the assessment, but without the information the employer can only make a decision based on the information available. In order to try to deal with this issue, employers may wish to include provisions within their employment contracts or policy documents that require employees to consent to such assessments.
– Employees also need to consent to the disclosure of the return to work plan to their employer. If disclosed, it is then entirely down to the employer as to whether it follows any of the recommendations made in it. Of course, tribunals may not look favourably on employers who choose not to follow such recommendations when dealing with sickness absence, but this will depend on the circumstances, including the size and resources of the employer.
– There may be issues with the telephone service; for example, employees may not wish to discuss personal problems with a stranger over the telephone and the assessor may only have limited information about the problem. The assessor may not necessarily have access to the employee’s medical history, for example.
– It is not known yet how much involvement employers will have in the production of the return to work plan. It is important for employers to be involved when dealing with sickness absence as they may be in the best position to know what adjustments could be made to facilitate a return to work.
Our understanding is that this service is not designed to replace existing occupational health services. We envisage this scheme being more useful as a supplement to existing services (perhaps for more basic absence issues) or for small to medium sized businesses who perhaps haven’t used an occupational health service before or who do not have easy access to a provider. We have some concerns about the effectiveness of this new service and will be keeping an eye on it in future.
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).