‘Your Business is Our Business’
The Government has produced new guidance for employers, employees and GPs on the Fit for Work Scheme. The scheme is due to be rolled out April 2015.
Fit for Work is free and there are two elements: (a) an advice service providing health and work advice through a website (www.fitforwork.org (England and Wales) and www.fitforworkscotland.scot (Scotland)) and a telephone line (0800 032 6235 (England and Wales) and 0800 019 2211 (Scotland)) to help with absence prevention, and (b) a referral service providing an occupational health assessment and a return to work plan for employees who have been off sick from work, or who are likely to be off sick from work, for four weeks or more.
It is hoped that the referral service will help employees return to work sooner and employees will normally be referred by their GP, but employers can also make a referral after four weeks of absence. Employees will then be contacted within two working days of the referral and they will receive an assessment by an occupational health professional, which will usually take place over the telephone. If a face-to-face assessment is deemed necessary, this will take place within five working days of this decision being made. The occupational health professional will become the employee’s case manager through to the end of the process. The assessment will seek to identify all potential obstacles preventing the employee from returning to work and involve agreeing a plan designed to address each obstacle to enable a safe and sustained return to work. Surprisingly, the case manager conducting the assessment does not have to contact the employer to discuss factors which might help to develop the return to work plan. This interaction only occurs when the case manager deems it necessary to contact the employer and this is subject to the employee’s consent.
Once again, the resulting return to work plan which will reflect the assessment will only be sent to the employer with the employee’s consent. This appears to be at odds with the purpose of the assessment as it provides advice and recommendations on steps that the employer can take to get the employee back to work. The return to work plan can be accepted as evidence of sickness absence in the same way as a statement of fitness for work, or ‘fit note’, issued by a GP – the employee will not need to provide a fit note as well, unless they still remain off work when they are discharged from Fit for Work. It is not mandatory for employers to refer employees to Fit for Work, nor to implement the recommendations highlighted in the return to work plan (although, of course, a recommendation might constitute a reasonable adjustment for a disability under the Equality Act 2010).
The case manager will then contact the employee at an arranged point to check if the return to work plan is on course and, in addition, will contact the employee shortly after the return to work date. If necessary, the case manager will arrange for a further assessment by Fit for Work, for example if the employee has not returned to work as anticipated. The return to work plan may also be revised to reflect any changes that are necessary. Employees will be discharged from Fit for Work when they have returned to work (including a phased return to work), or at the point when Fit for Work can no longer provide further assistance or if a return to work has not been possible after three months.
In order for employers to make a Fit for Work referral, the employee needs to have been absent from work for four weeks or more due to illness, have a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work, have not previously been referred for a Fit for Work assessment within the last 12 months and have not received a return to work plan as a result and have provided their consent to be referred. If the employee’s GP has already made a referral to Fit for Work, the employer cannot then make a referral.
GPs are able to refer earlier or later than four weeks if they judge an employee will be absent for four weeks and an earlier or later referral may be beneficial.
The Service will be funded by the abolition of the Percentage Threshold Scheme (PTS), which enables employers to reclaim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) in certain circumstances.
Fit for Work will complement and not replace any existing occupational health services provided by employers.