Changes afoot for those off sick for more than a month.
According to the government, an average of 960,000 employees are off sick each year for longer than a month. The government claims this costs the national economy £100 billion a year and means 130 million days are lost to sickness absence.
So later this year the government will launch its new ‘Health and Work Service’ to try and get people back to work sooner. “It’s expected to save employers £70 million a year and cut the time people spend off work by 20% to 40%” says the government. The idea is to stop short term sickness absence turning into long-term absence on welfare benefits. It ought to be very popular with employers.
GPs will be able to refer employees to the new service when they have been off work – or are expected to be off work – for longer than four weeks. The individual will go to the new independent, private sector-run service for an occupational health assessment. This will identify the issues preventing him/her from returning to work and draw up a plan for the employee, their employer and GP, recommending how the individual can be helped back to work more quickly.
The plan will include a timetable for a return to work, fitness for work advice, as well as signposting to appropriate help. Employees will be supported throughout their time with the service, so they can return to work as soon as they are able to.
The government promises that “The new service will provide free, independent, work-focused occupational health advice to all employers, but will especially benefit small and medium enterprises who currently have limited or no in-house occupational health services.” On the other hand, the government is funding this service by abolishing the payback of statutory sick pay to employers.
The trouble is, the scheme is voluntary so the employee can refuse to be assessed or to follow the timetable to return. When the scheme was first announced, it made it compulsory for an employee to play ball or he/she would not be entitled to further fit notes from their GP. Also, although the scheme sounds sensible and straightforward, we must not forget that stress is now the leading cause of long-term sickness absence. Getting someone back to work with mental problems can be less straightforward than for someone with a physical ailment.
There is no doubt that long-term sickness absence is difficult for employers and employees alike. It is to be hoped that this scheme will enable both to be more proactive and positive about returning to work as soon as possible. But without the element of compulsion, there may be no significant impact.