EMPLOYMENT law firm Law At Work says the introduction of a new government-backed scheme intended to help those on long term sick leave return to employment will be a good thing for businesses, but only if they choose to embrace it.
The phased roll out, from this month, of the Fit for Work scheme across the UK will, the company says, make occupational health advice more readily available to employers and employees alike, in the hope it will enable them to manage sickness absence better, resulting in a healthier workforce.
A government review of the UK’s sickness absence system showed that over 130m days are lost to sickness absence each year, costing the UK economy more than £15bn.
The new health and work assessment and advisory service is intended to help businesses manage employees who have been off work ill for more than four weeks. The employee can be referred to the state-funded service to help ensure that there are appropriate measures in place to help them return.
The four main aims of the service are to:
• support people to reduce the length of sickness absence
• reduce the chances of people falling out of work and on to benefits
• ncrease awareness of the benefits of working to a person’s health
• ncrease the positive actions taken by employers, employees and GPs in contributing to a change in attitudes towards health and work.
However, Law at Work suggested the voluntary nature of the service – which means the employee must give consent for their GP to refer them to the service – may lower take up.
Donald MacKinnon, director of legal service at Law at Work said: “Anything that gets people off long term sickness is a good thing – not just for the individual, but for the business and the state. Employees on mid to long-term sickness absence can be referred by their GP for a free telephone health assessment and return to work advice.
“The longer an employee is absent from work, the less likely they are to return. Therefore any assistance employees can receive to improve that situation will benefit everyone.
“The presumption of the government in establishing the scheme was that referral of employees after four weeks would be mandatory. Yet, there are very good reasons why an employee might wish not to be referred – especially around patient confidentiality.
“So where does that leave the business, especially smaller businesses where the loss of a key staff member can be crippling? Every business and each employee’s case is individual and requires careful and constructive management. This scheme will be a useful tool, but it should not detract from an employer’s duty to manage each absence appropriately.”