Fit for Work Service

In 2013, the last full year for which figures are available, 131 million working days were lost due to sickness. Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression accounted for 38% of the total – a large proportion of which may be preventable.

After taking measures to reduce the amount of health and safety legislation, the government is turning its attention to reducing the numbers of long-term sickness absence.

Around one million people in the UK are off work long-term due to illness, according to the government. As a result, it is introducing the new Fit for Work Service (previously called the Health and Work Service), which aims to get those who have been off sick for more than four weeks back to work more quickly by offering non-compulsory medical assessments and treatment plans. It also enables employers to fund the first £500 of treatment on a tax-free basis. The scheme does not change any current legislation and employees have to agree to their medical records being shared for them and their employers to access the scheme.

The government says the scheme, which is run by Health Management Limited in England and Wales and the Scottish government in Scotland, may save employers up to £70 million in a year in reduced sickness pay and related costs plus increased productivity. It is also an important step for the long-term sick who risk losing touch with the world of employment.

The service comprises a health and work telephone helpline and online support for employers, employees and GPs; and access to an occupational health assessment for employees off sick for four weeks or more. It aims to produce a timetabled ‘return to work plan’ and will engage with the employer where appropriate to understand the workplace and discuss potential interventions.

The service, which has the backing of the Trades Union Congress, is intended to be wide ranging, but its focus will be on musculoskeletal and mental health conditions. At the time of writing the website and telephone helpline had gone live and the GP referral scheme had begun to be rolled out, with national coverage expected by autumn 2015, when employers can start to refer too. More information is available at: http://fitforwork.org

For more on absenteeism issues see article 192.