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Each year around 865,000 employee absences in England and Wales last for four weeks or more.

From today, all employers across England and Wales will be able to refer employees facing long-term sickness into the new support service, known as Fit for Work. Designed to help working people who face lengthy sickness absence return to work, Fit for Work provides the services of occupational health professionals to employed people if they have been, or are likely to be, off work for four weeks or more. The service is already open to employers in Scotland.

According to a survey conducted by Redshift Research among 1501 employers and 1500 employees working full or part time in August 2015, each year around 865,000 employee absences in England and Wales last for four weeks or more. 74 percent of employers in England and Wales feel that if they had more external support, employees would be able to return to work earlier following long term sickness absence, whilst 63 percent of employees who have been off work for 4 weeks or more in England and Wales feel that with more external help they could have returned to work earlier following a prolonged period of sick leave.

Plugging the gap

The service is particularly helpful for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) employing a large proportion of the workforce but with no or limited occupational health support. It is estimated that around 70 percent of employees don’t have access to occupational health services. Fit for Work is also available to larger employers, where it can help complement existing occupational health services. Together with helping employers to reduce the impact of long-term sickness absence on their businesses, the new service has the potential to help cut sick pay costs to business.

The gap in provision was identified in the ‘Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence’ by Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE – where it was recognised as one of the obstacles to people, particularly those working in SMEs, from returning to work.

“Backing working people is central to the continued success of this country, said Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud, “The longer someone remains out of work due to sickness, the greater the cost to their career, income and future earnings. Fit for Work will ensure that people get the right help when they need it to get back to work so they can continue to support themselves and their families.”

David Frost CBE commented, “Employers have asked for a service that will provide rapid access for their employees to get practical advice on the support they need to make a return to work. The evidence is clear – the longer a person is out of work the harder it becomes to make a successful return to their job. Now Fit for Work has launched, all employees and employers across the country have access to free occupational health advice and support for the very first time. The service will provide much needed support, particularly to small businesses.”

Separate independent research carried out by Redshift Research on behalf of Health Management Limited with a representative sample of employers and employees across England and Wales reveals that many employers were not satisfied with their ability to tackle long term sickness in their work place, with over half saying that they could do more to support and help employees returning to work after a prolonged sickness absence.

Over half (61%) of employers worry about contacting their sick employees in case they feel pressurised and similarly (56%) of employees said they would not want their employer to contact them when they are off work because of sickness. Fit for Work can fill that gap by helping employees with their return to work, whilst removing the pressure that can be placed on both the employee and employer.

Employers will be joining GPs who are already referring their patients into the free and confidential service, which includes an in-depth assessment, followed by a personalised Return to Work Plan and managed support to get back to work. Individuals concerned must give their consent to participate.

How it works

Within two working days of a referral to Fit for Work, the employee will receive an in-depth consultation with an occupational health professional who will explore all the issues that might be preventing a return to work. This will include work-related and wider personal issues as well as health matters. They will then work with the employee to agree a personalised Return to Work Plan.

The Return to Work Plan will direct employees towards services that will help them overcome any obstacles keeping them away from work. If the employee gives consent, Fit for Work professionals can also work directly with employers to help achieve a return to work. The Return to Work plan will provide evidence of sickness for pay purposes, replacing the need for a fit note.

The Fit for Work referral service is complemented by a telephone advice line and website, both of which can be used now by anyone requiring work-related health advice, including employees, employers and GPs: 0800 032 6235