According to a 2014 report by the Office of National Statistics, in 2013, 131 million working days were lost due to sickness absence in the UK. Although this represents a slight decline in numbers, it still remains disproportionately high. Successive governments have recognised this issue and have sought to take steps to assist employers. In 2010, the traditional GP’s note was replaced with a ‘Statement of Fitness for Work’. The idea behind the statement was rather than an employee simply being deemed unfit for all work, GP’s were forced to consider alternative options to help an employee back to work such as phased returns, amended duties, altered hours and workplace adaptations. For 2015, the Government has now launched a new Fit for Work (“FFW”) Scheme with a view to assisting employers and employees with long-term sickness absence issues.

What is the FFW?

FFW offers employers and employees free health and work advice through a website and telephone line. However, the primary benefit is a free referral to an occupational health assessment scheme.

The referral is available to employees who:

  • have been absent from work for four or more weeks
  • have a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work
  • have not been referred for a FFW assessment within the last 12 months and have not received a Return to Work (“RTW “) Plan; and have provided written consent to the referral.

Employees will normally be referred by their GP but employers can also make a referral after four weeks of absence.

How does it work?

Employees will be contacted within two working days of a referral by their GP or their employer. They will usually receive an assessment by an occupational health professional over the telephone. If a face to face assessment is necessary, this will take place within five working days of this judgment being made.

The assessment will seek to identify all potential obstacles preventing the employee from returning to work (including health, work and personal factors) and involve agreeing a plan designed to enable a safe and sustained return to work.

The RTW Plan will reflect the assessment and provide advice and recommendations for interventions to help the employee return to work more quickly. However, employers need to be aware that they can only see the RTW Plan with the employee’s consent.

Assuming that employers are permitted to see a RTW Plan, this will effectively function to replace the Statement of Fitness for Work. A RTW Plan will be sufficient for Statutory Sick Pay purposes.

Tax exempt medical care

From 1 January 2015, there is a tax exemption of up to £500 (per year, per employee) on medical treatments recommended to help employees return to work. This will be applicable to treatments recommended by health professionals within FFW and health professionals within employer-arranged occupational health services. Employers will not be obliged to fund medical care.

What should employers do?

Employers will not be prevented from seeking their own medical opinions and therefore, should not rush to scrap their own company doctors and occupational health specialists. The FFW Scheme is in its infancy and will take time to bed in. It is yet to be seen how effective a telephone assessment may be, especially if the assessor has a limited amount of information about the job role that the sick employee is required to undertake. Nonetheless, employers should start to acquaint themselves with this system as GPs may look to refer more and more employees to this service to relieve the pressures currently being placed on their limited resources.

Employers should ensure that the contract of employment contains an express written obligation of the employee to consent to medical assessments (although this does not replace the need to contain consent at the time of making a referral). It is also an opportune time to review and update sickness policies as you may wish to build the FFW Scheme into your existing practices.