More than a year on from its launch, the Government’s flagship Fit for Work sickness absence service remains singularly underused by employers, research has suggested.
And this is despite the fact the vast majority of HR professionals now appear to be aware of the service and what is can offer to employers.
A study by PMI Health Group, part of Willis Towers Watson’s health and benefits team, has concluded that more than four-fifths (82%) of HR professionals questioned were now aware of the scheme – up from 70% reported in a similar survey ahead of the scheme’s launch at the end of 2015.
However, only slightly more than one-fifth (21%) said they had used Fit for Work.
There were also reservations about how the service worked. Three-fifths (60%) of those questioned felt there was still too much focus on “fitness” to work rather than early intervention and phased returns to work.
More positively, however, 68% said the free health advice offered under the scheme was useful.
“It would have been fair to expect an increase in awareness of the Fit for Work scheme to have gone hand-in hand with a reasonable level of participation, but this clearly hasn’t happened,” said Mike Blake, director at PMI Health Group.
“Part of the problem may be that employers must wait until an employee has been absent for four weeks before referring them to an occupational health professional.
“Many employers opt for early interventions, which can be so important in tackling long-term sickness absence, and they may be pursuing a course of action that does not easily include the Fit for Work service,” he added.
Separately, a freedom of information request to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) by disability rights campaigner John Pring has revealed that more than 1,600 complaints have been made against nurses carrying out fitness-for-work assessments in the past five years.
The figure, reported in the publication Third Force News, suggested that 7% of an estimated 4,800 complaints a year received by the NMC over the past five years have been linked to nurses working for a benefits assessment contractor.
These included assessments for eligibility for personal independence payments as well as work capability assessments, which assess individuals for eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.