The Government’s new Fit for Work service health and return-to-work assessment service completed its national roll-out in September and has opened to employer referrals.
Employers in Scotland had already been able to make phone referrals since the summer and now employers in England and Wales can do the same. GPs have been able to refer into the voluntary service since July.
In an effort to tackle ongoing concerns within the profession about the low public profile of the service, in September, Fit for Work linked up with conciliation service Acas to unveil a programme of awareness-raising events around the country.
Lord Freud, welfare reform minister said: “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.”
The roadshows will include representatives from Acas, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Fit for Work. The keynote speaker will be David Frost, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce who, with Dame Carol Black, co-authored the 2011 Frost/Black review of sickness absence that originally recommended the establishment of a health assessment, advisory and return-to-work service.
The events will cover: how the service will operate; how to tackle sickness in the workplace; new research on the key drivers of sickness absence; and case studies. The DWP also updated its guidance for employers and employees on Fit for Work in September.
Separately, research commissioned by Health Management Ltd, operator of Fit for Work in England and Wales, concluded that there is an appetite among employers for the sort of support the new service is intended to provide.
Many employers were not satisfied with their ability to tackle long-term sickness, with more than half admitting they felt they could do more to support and help employees returning to work after a prolonged sickness absence.
More than six out of 10 (61%) employers worried about contacting their sick employees in case they felt pressurised, and half (56%) of employees said they would not want their employer to contact them when they are off sick, it said.
However, Elliott Hurst, director of health consulting at AXA PPP healthcare, has argued that, for large employers especially, Fit for Work should not be seen as a “panacea” for all sickness absence issues.
“The service… is limited to employees who are off work, whose absence has lasted, or is 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. 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.
“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 sets 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,” Hurst added.