Fit for Work: The default service for long-term staff absence – Dr Lucy Goundry

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The Fit for Work service can work as a standalone occupational health assessment service for firms currently without provision or help existing employer services by freeing them up to focus on other issues says Dr. Lucy Goundry, medical director of Fit for Work

It has been eight months since employers across England and Wales began referring employees who had been off sick for four weeks or more to Fit for Work.

We believe the service so far has proved extremely useful to employers – with referrals coming from all types of business, large and small – helping employees to make a successful return to work after a significant period of absence.

At the end of 2015 we hosted a number of employer-focused roadshows across England and Wales in association with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. These events were all over-subscribed, with more than 900 employers attending and wanting to learn more about the service.

Isle of Man Steam Packet Co human resources manager Ethel Docherty has referred employees to the service and is fulsome in her praise, saying: “The scheme is fantastic. The company has
used the Fit for Work service for our GB employees who have been off sick for more than four weeks. From a business perspective, this service has been invaluable to both the company and
the employee.

“Most recently, one of our employees spoke to a Fit for Work case manager, whose vast experience helped them to return to work within one week of their conversation.”

Fit for Work is continuing to raise awareness by working with employers to help them host presentations on the service. We are also continuing our work with key stakeholders, such as Acas, which is delivering regular workshops on Fit for Work and managing sickness absence.

Our ultimate goal is for Fit for Work to become the default service for people who hit four weeks’ sickness absence. We want every employer – when they need to – to think of us and know they can refer an employee who has been absent from work for four weeks or more to a dedicated health professional, who will help that employee to get back to work.

It is important for employers to be reminded that Fit for Work also provides free advice via a freephone number and website, which are available to everyone.

We have been getting a lot of questions from employers about how the service oper-
ates. One of the most common is whether they can call and speak to a case manager if they receive a Return to Work Plan from us and wish to discuss the recommendations made in that plan.

Employers are able to talk to the case manager who produced the plan – the employee
will normally have the same case manager throughout the process – and discuss any concerns or queries they have, provided the employee has consented.

Otherwise, the advice line is available for support and help in answering any of the emp­loyer’s questions.Employers also regularly ask at what point in the referral process the employer is contacted. If the employee has given their consent for Fit for Work to approach their company, the employer would usually be contacted before the plan was completed to obtain their input.

For example, adjustments may be required at work, on which the employer can advise.

We often tell employees it would be a good idea for us to speak to their employer, to help resolve any issues more quickly and effectively.

Another common query from employers relates to how Fit for Work operates with existing occupational health services. Fit for Work is there to enhance the work of occupational health services, not replace it. A case manager will always check whether an employee has access to occupational health provision at work.

Some companies are routinely using Fit for Work as a front line for all employee absence of four weeks, with escalation to in-house services for more complex cases or where a return to
work has not been made within three months. This can free up their occupational health service to focus on other statutory requirements or on more proactive services.