Fit for Work – are you ready Oxfordshire Employers and Employees?
The Government, through the DWP is soon to finish its roll out of its much awaited and talked about “Fit for Work” Free Occupational Health Assessment scheme in an attempt to assist employers by cutting sickness absence and to help employees return to work with the appropriate guidance. It’s the last part of the last Government’s policy reforms to get Brits back to work and started in 2010. This policy included support for childcare, disability and for the older working population. The service went live on 15 July 2015 but referrals cannot actually be made until the Autumn of this year!
It works on the basis that by providing occupational health assessments to more people it will assist those on short to medium term sick from falling into long term sickness. Sickness reportedly accounts for around £9 billion spent by employers in sickness pay and associated costs per annum. The Scheme is aiming to reduce this by some £80 million a year! This also costs industry and employers a huge amount in lost productivity, morale and affects many employee’s wages packets (purportedly employees lose around £4billion a year in lost earnings according to an independent review of sickness absence in Jan 2013) as not all employers pay above statutory sick pay. Inclusion in the scheme also acts as evidence of sickness for pay purposes replacing the need for a sick note and so it is hoped will take away some pressure of appointments on GP’s too.
However, the full roll out of the scheme is already running behind – it was launched in December 2014, following a pilot scheme, and was due to be in place for the whole UK by Spring 2015. Whilst the Scheme has been announced as live, referrals cannot actually be made until Autumn 2015 across the UK. It offers a free Occupational Health Assessment through a largely telephone based system and bites after the employee has been off sick for 4 weeks. GP’s and Employers will be able to make referrals under the Scheme but it is envisaged the referrals will mainly be through GP’s. It is hoped that within 2 working days of a referral, the employee will receive an in-depth consultation with occupational health professional. The free service provides 1 assessment per annum or in a 12-month window by a qualified healthcare professional to advise upon likely return, adjustments that can be made and other helpful guidance to help get the employee back to work sooner. It also gives Employers a tax exemption of £500 per employee as a medical treatment.
It seems great in theory; its free, it’s a system to help get sick employees back to work but practically will it help? Is it another hoop for employers to jump through when dealing with sickness issues? Another process employees must follow? The timescales promised for a referral to take place seem highly optimistic! It’s highly likely to render any ill health dismissals unfair if the employer does not first use the new system so by default is it not creating a new irreducible minimum standard in such cases?
The system operates on the basis of the case worker acting and advising on the information that the employee gives them, so it will be a balanced and objective view of the actual illness and ability to return or will the case worker just become an advocate for the employee against the employer based on the subjective account the employee gives of the illness, their abilities etc? It is easy to see how an unscrupulous employee could use it to their own advantage. Also, many long-term sickness absences are the result of complex illnesses requiring referrals to specialist consultants, so it’s hard to see how this system will assist at in all in such instances.
Will it really expedite employees returning to work quicker or will the free system quickly become over subscribed causing further delays that affect both the employer and the employee. If a referral has been made but the employee gets fed up waiting and wants to come back to work, from a health and safety perspective, is it safe for the employer to just let them come back to work without the results of the assessment?
How much will the system work with the employer or is it purely a support mechanism for the employee. Employee’s can give their employer permission to speak to their caseworker but will they want to and how guarded will the caseworker be?
It’s a veritable minefield of unanswered questions at present and so the proof of the pudding as they say …. We will no doubt soon see how it actually works in practice, once it’s finally in place and operational. Free occupational support access for more people must ultimately be a good thing but time will tell.
If you have any questions on this or any other employment law matter please contact Natalie at Oak Employment Solicitors