New approach to sickness absence management to be introduced

Background

Sickness absence remains a huge problem for employers of all shapes and sizes. It has recently been reported that the annual cost of sickness absence has climbed to almost £29 billion for UK organisations. In an attempt to assist employers in managing long-term sickness absence in particular, the Government has announced the introduction of the ‘Health and Work Service’.

In early 2011, the Department of Work and Pensions requested an independent review of sickness absence in the UK. A report was published later that year with a number of recommendations, including the creation of a state-funded health assessment and advisory service. The Government published its response in January 2013 setting out its plans for the new service, the Health and Work Service.

Currently, it is intended the Service will launch with a staged approach from October 2014, with the intention of a full national service being in place by April 2015.

The Health and Work Service

The intended aim of the Service is to provide occupational health advice and support (primarily by phone and online) to employees, employers and GPs to help people with a health condition stay in, or return to work. Although the Service will cover a wide range of conditions, its focus will be on musculoskeletal and mental health conditions – the two most popular cited reasons for long-term sickness absence.

If return to work is not possible, the Service will identify suitable work with another employer and refer the employee to an internet job-matching service.

The Assessment Process

Where an employee has been absent, or is expected to be absent, as a result of sickness for at least 4 weeks, they will usually be referred by their GP for an assessment by an occupational health professional. Once referred, a case manager will be appointed by the Service and an initial assessment will be conducted (normally by telephone). If necessary a face-to-face assessment will then be arranged. Following the assessment, the Service will provide a Return to Work Plan setting set out specific advice and recommendations to facilitate the employee’s return to work. Subject to the employee’s consent, the plan will then be shared with the employer and employee’s GP.

The plan will provide evidence of fitness for work for the purpose of receiving SSP. As such, ‘fit notes’ will no longer need to be provided. However, it is worth noting that the Government has confirmed that “where an employee fails to engage with the Service, no further fit notes will be issued”, removing the employees means to claim SSP.

Funding

The Service will be funded through the abolition of the Statutory Sick Pay Percentage Threshold Scheme as of 6 April this year, which compensated employers for higher than average sickness absence.

Implications for Employers

The Service will be available to employers of all sizes, although it will likely benefit smaller employers who do not currently provide employees with access to occupational health services. It remains to be seen how effective the Service will be and the quality of the assistance provided. Employers who do already have existing quality occupational health services in place, may choose to stick with those services, or use the Government Service only to compliment its current practices.