Employment Law’s Best Kept Secret

Following what has been a relatively quiet summer in the world of employment cases and news stories there is big news around the corner, but for some unknown reason nobody is talking about it! From autumn this year (assuming the Government meets its target) all employers will have the ability to refer an employee for a free (yes free) occupational health assessment after the employee has been absent from work for a period of 4 weeks.  

Unfortunately, managing staff on long term sickness is something that almost all organisations will have to address at some point. This statement is supported by the Government’s research in to this area which produced some staggering statistics. Were you aware that in the UK close to 1 million employees will be absent for 4 weeks or longer every year, that sickness absence is estimated to cost UK employers £9 billion per year and that approximately 300,000 people will fall out of work and in to the welfare system this year? Against this background, the Government are currently rolling out what could prove to be a revolutionary new Fit For Work Scheme (FFW).     

The FFW provides free occupational health assessments and return to work plans with a focus on “getting people back to work”. The scheme is live now, albeit only GPs have the capacity to make referrals. The big change for employers will come at some point between now and the end of the year when they will have the ability to refer employees to the FFW once an employee has reached 4 weeks of absence. This is likely to make a huge difference to employers (especially small and medium sized organisations) who will not only able to obtain a report without the worry of incurring costs, but will have a green light to refer employees after 4 weeks of absence.  

Employers are often nervous about referring employees to occupational health too early and employees often perceive a referral as a negative act on the part of their employer. The FFW has the potential to remove these uncertainties and is likely to result in a change of culture which sees employees routinely referred after 4 weeks of absence. The scheme is not compulsory, but encouraging employers and employees to address long term absence at the 4 week point is in line with the Government’s stated aim of helping more people return to work at the earliest opportunity.  

The FFW website claims that employees will be contacted within 2 days of the initial referral and that a face to face consultation will then be arranged within a further 5 days. The ability to meet these targets will be dependant upon both the efficiency of the service and the level of uptake, but the true success or failure of the scheme will not be capable of assessment for a number of years. What has shocked me is the lack of publicity over what is a ground breaking initiative capable of significant reform for employers and employees throughout the UK. Had you heard of the FFW before reading this article? Is your organisation ready for the changes? At its simplest level most organisations will want to amend their absence policies to reflect the new scheme and it will then be a case of waiting to see when it goes live for employers – watch this space.

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