Will new service be fit for purpose?

Alan Delaney, Maclay Murray & Spens

The UK government has recently launched the Fit for Work service. Among other things, the scheme is designed to help employees return to or stay in work after illness. What are the implications for employers?

What is the new Fit for Work service?
It is the government’s response to a detailed independent review carried out in 2011, which looked at the impact of sickness absence on UK employers and what could be done to improve the number of lost working days sustained by businesses. The aim is to provide a government-funded occupational health assessment and advice service to employers, designed to help employees return to or stay in work after an illness. A clear objective is early intervention, given the evidence that the longer an employee is signed off work, a successful return to work becomes less likely.

How will referrals take place to the new service?
The intention is that it will primarily be GPs that will refer employees to Fit for Work, although the government has proposed that employers will also be able to refer employees if, after four weeks absence, they have not yet been referred by their GP.
The system is voluntary and it will be down to the discretion of the individual GP whether they consider a referral would be beneficial for the employee or not. In a recent pre-launch government study, GPs said they would be less likely to refer employees who had a clear recovery path and were more likely to return to work under their own steam.

Who will deliver the new service?
In Scotland, the service is called Fit for Work Scotland and will be delivered by the Scottish Government. In England and Wales, a private contractor, Health Management Limited, has been appointed by the government to deliver the service. Both have now launched websites which can be found at fitforworkscotland.scot and fitforwork.org

What can employers expect from Fit for Work?
After an employee has been referred, he or she will be assessed by a Fit for Work occupational health professional, who will consider the obstacles to a successful return to work, which will be followed by a Return to Work Plan, tailored to the employee’s needs.
On the launch website, there is a suggestion that this may replace the need for a Fit Note. In addition, there is a range of guidance and a telephone and online advice service available for employers looking for information on health at work and sickness absence issues.

What if we currently have our own occupational health advisers?
Where there is existing occupational health coverage, it may be that a referral would not add much value, although the government envisages Fit for Work operating alongside existing providers. Potential issues may of course arise where Fit for Work produces recommendations which conflict with existing advice obtained from the employer’s occupational health advisers.

When does the new service go live?
The advice service is currently up and running and the government plan is for the referral service to be rolled out on a phased basis over the next few months.