Neil Buck: The “Fit for Work” service – have employers ever used it?

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One of the areas I regularly advise employers on is absence, in particular long-term sickness absence (typically more than four weeks) for either a mental or physical issue preventing the employee from working.

In SMEs this can be a major disruption and frustration and is often handled badly by management as a result – somewhat understandably when all they want is for everyone to turn up to work, do the job and go home. Simple. Oh, if only!

Everyone is a cog that has a particular function to play in the business machine and so any long-term absence can play havoc with resources, production and ultimately the bottom line. Dealing with it in the most appropriate manner is required, since a failure to do so could lead to more costly problems.

One service that the government brought in almost two years ago was the free national “Fit for Work” service.

Fit for Work was initially established as a GP-led service but was extended to allow businesses to refer employees after four weeks. It aims to provide free, impartial advice to employers along with an occupational health assessment for staff off sick for four or more weeks, in a bid to reduce the NHS bill for long-term sickness by getting individuals back to work earlier.

However, two new surveys suggest this service is seldom used by GPs, or by the majority of employers, and so is largely ineffective and a waste of resources.

In a survey run on behalf of People Management by GP magazine, it found that around two-thirds (65%) of more than 400 GPs questioned had not referred a single person under the Fit for Work scheme in the last year. Of those who had used the scheme at some point, 40% said no one they had referred had successfully returned to work.

Meanwhile, three out of five (61%) of those questioned said they were not sure how effective the programme was at reducing long-term sickness absence and 15% described it as very ineffective.

Also, a different survey by manufacturers’ organisation EEF, revealed that although three-quarters (77%) of the 264 companies it surveyed had heard of the Fit for Work scheme, just a quarter of those that were aware of it would use it. Of the 14 respondents that had used the scheme, only three agreed it had helped their staff return to work earlier.

Pretty dismissal statistics and hence the service could legitimately be considered a waste of time and money – prior to the service being introduced in September 2015, employers were given a rebate towards SSP, but this was stopped so the money could be invested into the new service.

It’s fair to say there needs to be more publicity and awareness raised around this scheme for it to be ever used effectively as intended by the government to give employers a decent support service and enable employees to get back to work asap (or at least reach a conclusion as fast as possible that they aren’t perhaps able to return).

Of course, some slightly larger employers may have their own occupational health schemes in place but the vast majority of micro and small employers don’t and simply need more advice and support to manage the situation properly when a key member of their small team remains absent for longer than they can cope with.

The Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions launched a joint green paper and consultation into work, health and disability in November last year that covered Fit for Work.

The consultation closed for feedback on February 17 and the government website currently notes that the departments are analysing the feedback received, so watch this space.

In the meantime, if you have an employee who is on sick leave for more than four weeks please take action and don’t let the issue continue, it will do you, the business nor the employee no good in the long run. Get professional advice asap.