Fit for Work free occ health service goes live

The Fit for Work service went live last week, allowing employers across England and Wales to refer employees facing long-term sickness into a new state-sponsored occupational health service.

The service aims to fill the gap in provision identified in the ‘Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence’ by Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE – where it was recognised as one of the obstacles to people, particularly those working in SMEs, from returning to work.

The service has been designed with a particular focus on SMEs with no or limited occupational health support, estimated to include around 70 per cent of employees. Fit for Work is also available to larger employers, where it can help complement existing occupational health services. The government is hoping the service will help employers to reduce the impact of long-term sickness absence on their businesses, and potentially help cut sick pay costs.

The service is available to employed people if they have been, or are likely to be, off work for four weeks or more. The service is already open to employers in Scotland. The free and confidential service, which includes an in-depth assessment, followed by a personalised Return to Work Plan and managed support to get back to work. Individuals concerned must give their consent to participate.

The government says each year around 865,000 employee absences in England and Wales last for four weeks or more. 

Separate independent research carried out by Redshift Research on behalf of Health Management Limited with a representative sample of employers and employees across England and Wales reveals that many employers were not satisfied with their ability to tackle long term sickness in their work place, with over half saying that they could do more to support and help employees returning to work after a prolonged sickness absence.

Over half – 61 per cent of employers worry about contacting their sick employees in case they feel pressurised and 56 per cent of employees said they would not want their employer to contact them when they are off work because of sickness. 

Launching the service, Fit for Work also cites BIS research from 2013 that found 63 per cent of employees who have been off work for 4 weeks or more in England and Wales feel that with more external help they could have returned to work earlier following a prolonged period of sick leave.

Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud says: “Backing working people is central to the continued success of this country. The longer someone remains out of work due to sickness, the greater the cost to their career, income and future earnings. Fit for Work will ensure that people get the right help when they need it to get back to work so they can continue to support themselves and their families.”

David Frost CBE: says “Employers have asked for a service that will provide rapid access for their employees to get practical advice on the support they need to make a return to work. The evidence is clear – the longer a person is out of work the harder it becomes to make a successful return to their job. Now Fit for Work has launched, all employees and employers across the country have access to free occupational health advice and support for the very first time. The service will provide much needed support, particularly to small businesses.”

Axa PPP Healthcare director of health consulting Elliott Hurst says: ” as it stands, Fit for Work is no panacea for all sickness absence issues. The service, which offers guidance and plans to facilitate a return to work, is limited to employees who are off work, whose absence has lasted or likely to last for more than four weeks and for whom there is an expectation they will return to work. Arguably, this will not best serve employees for whom an earlier referral for assessment and treatment would be beneficial – for example, those affected by mental health conditions.

”Fit for Work is not a replacement for an existing employer occupational health programme, many of which will be well established and bespoke for employers’ particular needs. As Fit for Work notes, the service ‘will complement, and not replace, existing occupational health services provided by employers’.

“For example, Fit for Work may not have a full appreciation of business’ working environment, culture or operations, making it difficult to offer well informed decisions or recommendations compared with those provided by employers’ own occupational health programmes. Nor are employees obliged to share their Return to Work Plan with their employer – and may choose not to – meaning employers may remain unaware that Fit for Work was involved and has made recommendations to facilitate their return. And, given the potential for GPs to refer absent employees to Fit for Work too, employers that already have access to occupational health support may end up with two different set of rehabilitation plans, resulting in confusion at best and, at worst, a delayed return to work.

“Other limitations of Fit for Work include the absence of support for employees who are in work and for whom employers need advice – for example, regarding recurrent sickness absence or performance issues. Nor does it offer guidance on other occupational health matters such as post employment checks, health surveillance and fitness to attend workplace meetings. Employees are allowed one referral only within a 12 month period and those who have been referred to Fit for Work will be discharged from the service if a return to work is not achieved within three months.”