Return-to-work service launches today

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.

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‘s estimated that around 70% of employees don’t currently 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 reduce 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.

Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud commented: “Backing working people is central to the continued success of this country.

“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.”

The facts at a glance:

  • Each year around 865,000 employee absences in England and Wales last for four weeks or more
  • 74% 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
  • 63% of employees who have been off work for four 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

David Frost CBE said: “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 more than half saying that they could do more to support and help employees returning to work after a prolonged sickness absence.

More than 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 aims to fill that gap by helping employees with their return to work, while 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.