The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) has unveiled the first national guidance on how to manage long-term sickness absence and incapacity from work, in a move that could transform how NHS trusts manage absence and bring occupational health professionals more to centre stage.
The guidance from the government’s spending and drugs watchdog has been welcomed by OH and workplace professionals alike, amid predictions that it will become a benchmark for private sector employers as well as a mandatory requirement for NHS trusts.
The guidance recommends that employers should:
Identify someone who is suitably trained and impartial to undertake initial enquiries with an employee who is experiencing long-term sickness absence or recurring short- or long-term sickness absence.
Ensure initial enquiries take place before 12 weeks (and ideally between two to six weeks).
If necessary, arrange for a more detailed assessment by relevant specialists, perhaps co-ordinated by suitably trained case workers.
Agree, if necessary, a return-to-work plan.
Dr Tony Stevens, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine, said the guidance would, over time, help to widen access to specialist occupational health support.
“More than 70% of workers have no access to specialists that have training and expertise in work issues. There are no specialist services available to GPs trying to support workers with long-term medical problems. NICE has recognised the need for these services.”
And Cynthia Atwell, chair of the Royal College of Nursing Society of Occupational Health Nursing, added: “Companies will now be looking at the value of occupational health and whether they are getting value for money. If OH can prove that what they are doing is value for money, companies will follow that and do it.”
Dr Richard Preece, consultant OH physician and a member of the programme development group that helped to draw up the guidance, said it would probably be used by tribunals when judging cases brought against employers, whether public or private sector.