The Government is in the process of setting up the new Fit for Work Service (FFW) available to all employers on the recommendation of Dame Carol Black, the government’s national Director for Health and Work. This followed a consultation published in November 2011 which found that more assistance should be provided to employers to tackle sickness absence. The scheme is due to be completed in May this year. The telephone line and website have been up and running since December 2014.
A large number of employers do not have access to or employ an occupational health specialist. This service may prove invaluable for such employers in tackling long term sickness absences.
What will the scheme provide?
The scheme will provide free occupational health advice to employers for employees who have been off sick for four weeks or more. Telephone and online services will be available but employers will also benefit from return to work plans and health assessments. The scheme is not mandatory but referrals will be made by employers and GPs. Guidance from the Department for Work and Pensions has been issued for employers, GPs and employees. Where a GP is unsure whether a referral should be made, the DWP is advising that a referral should be the default position.
An employee can only be referred to FFW for one assessment in any 12-month period. However, there is no limit on the number of employees who can be referred.
Once an employee has been off work for four weeks or it is anticipated that an employee will be off work for four weeks or more, a referral should be made. FFW will then contact the employee by telephone within two working days. A case manager will be assigned. This will be the occupational health specialist who will assess the employee.
Face to face assessments
Face to face assessments will be rare but if a meeting would be more appropriate, this assessment should take place within five working days after the decision has been made to meet face to face. Assessments will take place within 90 minutes’ travelling time from the employee’s home address by public transport. The employee can claim travelling expenses. The guidance suggests that alternative arrangements can be made where the employee is unable to travel but these alternatives have not yet been clarified.
Return to work plan
The aim of the assessments is to identify barriers to the employee’s return to work and to agree a return to work plan. A return to work plan may be discussed between the occupational health specialist and the employer with the employee’s consent. This may assist occupational health in understanding the workplace environment and to ensure the impact on the employee’s ability to return to work is understood.
The return to work plan will be provided to the employer and the GP with the employee’s consent. The employee can ask for the plan to be amended or content removed before it is sent. The plan will suggest adjustments that may be made to assist employees return to work.
The case manager will contact the employee twice. Once to check that the plan is being carried out as expected and again prior to the return to work date. Further assessments may be carried out if the employee is not fit to return to work on the return date. Where the employer has not followed the plan, the case manager will contact the employer to ensure that the objectives of the plan are understood and can be implemented. The case manager will effectively act as a facilitator between the two parties. Appropriate agencies may be used where relations break down.
Tax exemption for businesses
A tax exemption is available for businesses of up to £500 per tax year per employee where the employer pays for medical treatments recommended by FFW. The exemption should be applied by the employer at the time of the benefit. There is no need to claim this back from HMRC. This is designed to encourage employers to provide the treatment required by the employee.
The return to work plan should be used in place of a fit note for statutory sick pay purposes. Employers should refrain from requesting fit notes where FFW have produced a plan. The aim is to reduce the burden on GPs and avoid the need for unnecessary consultations. If an employer wishes to receive a fit note from the GP, GPs should exercise discretion in issuing a fit note. If in doubt, GPs can telephone the advice line.
FFW will be brought to an end where the employee has returned to work and has been back at work for two weeks. This includes where the employee returns on a phased basis. FFW may also decide that no further assistance is required particularly where nothing further can be offered where the employee has been using the service for three months or the employee will be unable to return to work for three months or more.
It remains to be seen how effective the service will be in combating sickness absence levels but small to medium sized businesses should utilise this free service.