The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Fit for Work service has been set up to cut incidents of long-term sickness absence by helping employees return to work.
With the annual cost of sickness absence having risen to almost £29 billion for UK organisations1, the initiative is set to help minimise this financial impact while reducing business disruption and providing occupational health (OH) support to patients.
But how can the new service help HR professionals? PMI Health Group outlines five key ways Fit for Work can benefit your business and complement existing OH services?
1/ Free OH assessments
Although the Fit for Work service is not designed to replace existing occupational health services, it is free and offers employees who have been off sick for four weeks or more independent, objective assessments by OH professionals.
Eligible employees can be referred to the service by their employer or by their GP. OH professionals will then identify obstacles preventing the employee from returning to work and produce a Return to Work Plan tailored to the employee’s needs. This will include recommendations for medical interventions where appropriate.
Employees are not obliged to use the service and can only be referred once in every 12 months and only if they have a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work.
Web and telephone advice is also available to employers for work-related health matters affecting employees and the workplace.
2/ Complementary OH provision
Although Fit for Work delivers some aspects of an occupational health service, it does not deliver a fully comprehensive service.
It has instead been designed to complement existing occupational health services, filling the gap in support where it currently exists.
The service, for example, is only available after an employee has been absent for 28 days or longer. Employers may be keen to intervene sooner and this is where guidance from existing risk or occupational health professionals can help determine the most effective strategy for tackling absence and the appropriate benefits to use.
Furthermore, where a Fit for Work Case Manager has been appointed, they may contact an employer’s current occupational health adviser as part of an assessment when preparing a Return to Work Plan.
3/ Tax break for medical interventions
A tax exemption is available for medical treatments recommended to help employees return to work. The government has promoted this exemption through Fit for Work but it can include recommendations from your own occupational health provision as well as those that are part of the new service.
The tax exemption covers expenditure of up to £500 per employee, per tax year.
To qualify, employees must have been absent from work for at least 28 consecutive days due to ill health or injury, or they must have been assessed by a healthcare professional as not fit for work or may be fit for work for at least 28 consecutive days.
4/ Mental health support
Stress and mental illness is now the number one cause of workplace absence, responsible for more than half of all working days being lost every year.
Fit for Work will help address this problem by offering support to employees with mental health concerns.
From early 2016 employees referred to the service by their employer or GP will be offered cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) through a free online service.
CBT, a short-term therapy that helps individuals to change negative thought processes and behaviours, has been supported by NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) for tackling anxiety and depression.
5/ Medical evidence for SSP
Where employees have chosen to share their Fit for Work Return to Work Plans with employers, they can be used as medical evidence for Statutory Sick Pay purposes.
This makes GP consultations to obtain Fit Notes unnecessary and there is no need for an employer to request one to cover the period after which a Return to Work Plan was issued.
It should be remembered however that Fit for Work is not mandatory. As a consequence, Return to Work Plans may not be prepared in every case and fit notes can still be issued if deemed necessary in a GPs clinical judgement.