What is ‘Fit for Work’ and What Does it Mean For Business?

Find out more about the new government scheme which is currently being rolled out across the UK to help manage sickness absence

What is ‘Fit for Work’ and What Does it Mean For Business?

When staff are off on long-term sick leave, it can be a real struggle for employers to get them back into the workplace without long delays, time consuming meetings and lengthy correspondence, not to mention the prospect of further periods of absence.

The issue of long-term absence from work was identified by the government back in 2011 as a major problem that causes staff to become increasingly distanced from the labour market. The Fit for Work scheme is therefore being introduced to help tackle the issue, supporting individuals to remain in employment, and reduce the £9bn bill that employers have historically had to foot on sick pay and other associated costs.

The scheme which is not currently fully available (but rolling out in certain areas of the country) is designed to help employees who are off for four weeks or more with sickness absence to get back to work more quickly.

What does the Fit for Work scheme involve?

Essentially, the service will be split into two different elements to get employees back on their feet and is designed to help employers, employees and GPs with this process.

Assessment forms the first part of the service. When an employee reaches, or is expected to pass, the four week mark of sickness absence they will normally be referred by their GP for a free assessment by an occupational health professional.

Conducting the assessment through Fit for Work should save employers time and money – a real boon for small businesses especially, who have to keep a firm grasp on both. Following the assessment, the employee will be given a Return to Work plan which will normally be shared with the employer too.

The Return to Work plan will contain recommendations to help the employee do just what it says more quickly, and provide information on getting the right help or advice to do so.

This advice, the second part of the service, will be provided to all parties – the employer, employee, and GP – both through a phone line and website.

The biggest concern about the scheme is that the recommendations from Occupational Health might be unwieldy for a small business, something it is far too early to judge. But for those businesses that are concerned about this there is (as of January 1) a £500 tax break on the cost of any medical treatment recommended by the Fit for Work Assessment, but no help with the actual cost of any treatment.

What if you can’t accommodate Return to Work plans?

Sometimes, businesses cannot accommodate the measures suggested in a Return to Work plan as it is just isn’t feasible from a business perspective to spend that much time and money.

If you really cannot do this, you will need to tread very carefully and show good business justification for why you cannot accommodate a Return to Work plan, documenting that you have given consideration to the recommendations. Not doing this could place you at risk of a discrimination claim. The theory is that you won’t be dealing with this alone though, and can get advice from the assigned Fit for Work case manager, and if needs be look at alternatives. If you feel you need to implement a capability procedure, it may well be advisable to wait for the Return to Work plan to be issued before you start formal proceedings.

Despite these potential difficulties, Fit for Work has been tested and found to have accelerated employees’ return to work – despite a lower uptake than was expected. The service is currently on a ‘rollout’ across the UK, so is not yet available everywhere, but it is accessible in a few areas –including parts of the South East, Wales, and parts of Yorkshire, the Humber and Greater Manchester. To see if you are covered you can view the Fit for Work rollout map right here.

All in all, Fit for Work represents a good step forward for businesses and their management of long term sickness absence. However, the implementation of the service for businesses of all sizes still has yet to be fully tested in real situations across many parts of the UK – time will tell whether it will be able to help significantly those smaller businesses that cannot otherwise afford the help of occupational health professionals.

For more information on managing employee sickness issues in your small business, check out our guide here.

Georgina Read is co-founder and director of citrusHR, a refreshingly simple HR support service for small business.

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