The government should offer tax breaks to employers offering good-quality rehabilitation services designed to help the long-term sick return to work.

This is the view of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which claims such a move would boost the provision of these services.

At present they are only offered by 48 per cent of private sector firms compared to 84 of public sector employers, a CIPD survey found.

Ben Willmott, the institute’s workplace health advisor, said the poor level of rehabilitation currently on offer is undermining government efforts to get the long-term ill off benefits and back into jobs.

Workplace rehabilitation support such as counselling and flexible working plays a crucial role in helping employees return to work in a phased way, he explained.

"The government could make a real difference by providing tax incentives to encourage more employers to use occupational health and vocational rehabilitation services," Mr Willmott remarked.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, sickness absence costs the British economy over £12 billion a year.