By Louise Allen, Associate at DWFM Beckman
In an effort to tackle the common problem of employees being absent from work for prolonged periods of time due to sickness, the government has introduced a new Fit for Work service (FFW). This service is now fully operational throughout England and Wales and it is important for both employers and employees to familiarise themselves with it. A good starting point is the useful guidance that has been published by the Department for Work and Pensions.
How did FFW come about?
FFW was introduced during the course of 2015 following recommendations by Dame Carol Black, the government’s national Director for Health and Work, after conducting a review of sickness absence. FFW was so named to “accurately reflect the nature and impact of the service”. Essentially, it is designed to help employees return to work as quickly as appropriate.
What does FFW do?
FFW provides (a) free health and work advice through its website and a telephone advice line to help with absence prevention; and (b) free referral for an occupational health assessment (by registered occupational healthcare professionals) for eligible employees who have reached, or whose GP expects them to reach, four weeks of sickness absence
As part of FFW, employees more may be provided with a Return to Work Plan (Plan) to assist them to return to work.
Referrals to FFW are not mandatory; however, the guidance produced by the DWP suggests that it should be the default position. Referrals may be made by GPs and employers.
How does FFW work?
Once an employee is referred to FFW, they will be contacted to undertake an assessment, usually by telephone, with a view to creating a Return to Work Plan. The Plan will provide advice and recommendations to get the employee back to work. Although all parties are “encouraged to act on the recommendations”, it is the employer’s decision whether it wishes to implement any recommendations.
The hope is that the government’s introduction of a tax exemption will encourage employers to support recommendations made by a Plan. This tax exemption is up to £500 (per employee, per tax year) and it applies where an employer pays for medical treatment for an employee recommended by a healthcare professional as part of either FFW or any employer-arranged occupational health service.
Where appropriate, a Plan will include a timetable for the employee returning to work, although if an employee is not fit to return in the timescales estimated a further assessment may be necessary. Once the employee has consented, the Plan will be provided to their GP and employer.
Helpfully, a Plan can be accepted by an employer as evidence of sickness absence for statutory sick pay purposes in the same way as a fit note (statement of fitness for work) issued by a GP. Employers will therefore not need to ask employees for a fit note as well thereby preventing unnecessary consultations with GPs.
Following a referral, employees will be discharged from FFW when (a) they have returned to work (including a phased return to work); or (b) at the point when FFW can no longer provide further assistance or if a return to work has not been possible after three months.
How will FFW benefit employers?
For employers FFW is likely to help reduce the cost of sick pay by facilitating employees to return to work earlier but, perhaps more importantly; it is also a crucial development for small to medium sized businesses that previously only had limited access to occupational health advice and services.
What should employers do to reflect the introduction of FFW?
Whilst it is not mandatory for employers to refer employees to FFW or to implement the recommendations in a Plan, employers should still update their sickness absence policies to reflect the introduction of FFW and to inform their employees of the services provided. For example, it may be useful for employers to explain the process if an employee is referred to FFW and what they should do if they receive a Plan. The guidance suggests that this will help employers and particularly line managers to ensure that they are to handle Return to Work Plans appropriately.