• Government initiative to get sick employees back to work faster

  • 10 Feb 2014
  • Comments 5 comments

Workers off sick for four weeks could be referred for specialist support

The government has announced a scheme to give people on sick leave for more than four weeks extra support to get back to work.

Under the plans, intended to slash the cost of sickness absence, employers will be able to refer ill staff to health specialists for assessment.

The initiative will be delivered under ‘The Health and Work Service’, which will cover England, Wales and Scotland.

Specialists will be on hand to support employees with non-compulsory medical assessments and suggest a course of treatment to speed their recovery.

The scheme will be run by private sector firms and, according to current proposals from the Department for Work and Pensions, will be financed by scrapping compensation paid to employers who have to pay high levels of statutory sick pay, as part of the Statutory Sick Pay Percentage Threshold Scheme (PTS).

Moves to cut the cost of long-term absences come as figures from the government revealed that nearly 1 million workers are off sick for a month a year.

A date for the scheme’s launch has not been disclosed but the government said it could reduce ill-health costs for employers by as much as £70m a year.

Minister for Disabled People Mike Penning commented: "As part of the government's long-term economic plan, we are taking action to get people back into work. This is a triple-win. It will mean more people with a job, reduced cost for business, and a more financially secure future for Britain."

However, Hugh Robertson, the TUC's head of health and safety, sounded a more cautionary note "The focus of this service should be about getting them [workers] better as opposed to just back to work and the two are not necessarily the same," he said. The TUC warned that the scheme could force employees back to work before they were well enough.

Ben Willmott, CIPD head of public policy, said: “Given most small and medium sized businesses don’t have access to occupational health at all, anything that can provide advice and support to help to employers think about how they can get their staff who have been off for long periods back to work sooner rather than later has got to be a positive.

“One of the challenges is around the investment in any particular vocational rehabilitation like access to physiotherapy or counseling. Obviously employers will still have to make that investment but as part of this there will be tax relief of up to a value of £500 per employee per annum. There’s still a need to highlight the business case for employers to invest in the wellbeing of their staff. But hopefully this Health and Work Service can help to make that business case and help people make a more timely return to work.”

Willmott said he was not concerned that extra support would see people forced back to work before they were ready as it is a voluntary scheme.

“The majority of people who are sick want to get back to work. So I think they will engage with this quite positively. But ultimately, it will depend on people’s good will, it’ll depend on GPs, employers and employees taking the view that it’s better to go back to work than remain signed off sick with the potential that people will fall out of employment all together.”

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  • I agree in principle with what it is that the government are trying to achieve but at the same time, have some concerns. If businesses do not currently have the skills or resource to deal with long term sickness absence, will they have the time and resource to liaise with the new Health and Work Service and apply the processes required under the scheme? The good news for small (and other) businesses is that they will have an Occupational Health (OH) resource to tap into which, on the face of it, will be funded; the practicalities are yet to be realised.

    The proposal is that this new process will "identify the issues preventing an employee from returning to work and draw up a plan for them, their GP and their employer, recommending how the employee can be helped back to work more quickly". The majority of employers who have a fully functioning Absence Management (AM) policy will be doing this anyway; a phased return to work plan is not a new initiative. Getting GP's to participate is the bigger challenge.

    Under the proposals, the requirement for the employee to attend any medical assessment will not be compulsory. Workers will be allowed to "refuse to be assessed or to follow any course of action or treatment recommended". Where is the added benefit in this? From my experience, a good AM policy will make it clear that an employee is obliged to cooperate with any reasonable requests from a business that will aid and facilitate their return or rehabilitation back into the workplace. If the employer does not have a current AM policy, they are going to have to potentially introduce one to enable them to implement the new initiative. Some businesses may not have the wherewithal within the organisation to do this.

  • This could be particularly helpful to SME's where a key person being absent leaves a significant shortfall in resource terms. Where there perhaps isn't a great deal of expertise within the business regarding how, and where from, to secure the assistance the individual needs to get back to work and better health.

    That said, it does rely on improved dialogue between the employee, the employee's GP, the employer and 'The Health and Work Service' to overcome the lack of interpersonal competence/confidence which so often sees everyone covering their backside rather than looking for win-win outcomes.

  • I wonder if they are going to get ATOS to do these assessments? It will be amazing how many people are suddenly judged to be fit for work again....

  • They already ARE receiving specialist support - they are known as Doctors. This 'Health and Work Service' (motto: "Arbeit macht frei") sounds like ATOS in disguise ... and we all know how well that went. Would be interesting to know how much of the sick pay bill is down to ill people coming in to work and infecting the entire office. Now THAT needs to be stamped out ... my H&S is being compromised by the Spanish flu victim at the next desk who is running at 10% capacity because the boss insists she comes to work. Next week we'll ALL be either missing and/or running on fumes.

  • I would welcome any initiative to support employees back to work but I do question the current role of GP's and the principles which should have been adopted under the Fit Note introduction. The Fit Note should not be an automatic sign off that used to be seen when staff were signed off as sick for work but an assessment of their capabilities to be Fit for work. If the GPs liased more with employers and sent up vehicle to assess the employee based on what they could do and then this was shared with their employer then we should see a lot more staff returning to work early based on their capabilites and adjustments in the work place. This new process is a positive step forward for Long term cases (over 14 days) but not for short term early interventions