The ‘Fit for Work’ scheme – what it means for employers

Latest figures from the Government have shown that 131 million working days are lost to sickness absence very year in the UK, and over 1 million workers had sickness absences greater than one month.

The cost to employers, and to the country, in lost productivity, is considerable. Therefore, steps are now being taken to reduce longer term sickness absences by between 20% and 40% annually.

With the recent introduction of the ‘Fit for Work’ scheme, the Government is attempting to cut the cost of sick days, but how does the scheme work, and how can employers use it to lower the number of staff absences in their business?

What is the ‘Fit for Work’ scheme?

The Fit for Work scheme is funded by the government, and aims to cut down on sickness absence. It is not mandatory for employers to implement the scheme within their workplace, but the government claims that it will lessen the strain on employers and the National Health Service – the idea being that sickness absence will become less frequent and GP’s will have to issue fewer ‘fit notes’.

The scheme was launched in December 2014, and Health Management Limited was appointed as the supplier to deliver the scheme within England and Wales. Fit for Work provides two services to help workplaces;

  • Firstly, it provides access to online and over-the-phone advice on any health matters related to work, in an effort to help with absence prevention.
  • Secondly, a free referral for an occupational health assessment is available for any employees who have either reached, or are expected to reach, four weeks of sickness absence. Although employees will generally be referred to Fit for Work by their own GP, from Autumn 2015 in England and Wales employers will also be able to make a referral after the same length of time. (Effective from Spring 2015 in Scotland).

How does an occupational health assessment work?

In order to be referred for an occupational health assessment by an employer (after Autumn 2015), an employee must be eligible for the service and meet a set criteria. The employee must;

  • Still be employed by the employer that is making the referral
  • Have been, or is likely to be, absent from work for a minimum of four weeks
  • Have a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work
  • Have not already been referred for a Fit for Work assessment within the last 12 months
  • Have provided their consent to be referred.

Once an employee has been referred, the first stage of the process involves an assessment over the phone by an occupational health professional.

This assessment aims to identify any issues that have arisen, and usually involves agreeing a plan (Return to Work Plan) that is tailored specifically to address these issues, and facilitate a safer and faster return to work.

Despite being supportive and positive about the scheme overall, many GP’s have expressed a concern over the fact that the employees would generally only receive the advice over the phone, and would only receive face to face consultations in select scenarios.

What is the benefit to employers and employees?

The main and most obvious benefit of the scheme for employers is that it will reduce the amount that they incur in sick pay costs, by facilitating an earlier return to work for their employees.

Fit for Work can benefit smaller businesses in particular, as they may not have access to occupational health advice because of the expense that is incurred when signing up to employee health care or specialised HR plans.

The Government has now also introduced a yearly tax exemption for each employee, of up to £500. This applies to treatments that are recommended by Fit for Work health professionals. This aims to eradicate any disincentives (in the way of tax) that employers may have about seeking medical treatments for their staff that could go on to reduce sickness absence.

Employees will benefit from a new ‘Statement of Fitness for Work’, that takes less of a black and white approach to sickness absence, and concentrates more on what an employee is able to do at work, as opposed to what they can’t do.

This allows GP’s to suggest ways of returning to work, or continuing to work, without compromising an employee’s health. This can help to prevent the detrimental physical, mental and social effects of being off sick for a long period of time.

Employees that have gone through prolonged sickness absences can experience a loss of confidence, social exclusion, and sometimes mental health issues. A GP can make recommendations to an employer, in order to lessen the strain on both parties. They may recommend;

  • A way in which the workplace could be made more accessible for an employee
  • Changing an employees duties within the workplace
  • Working more flexible hours
  • Taking a phased return to work.

A further benefit for employers of t obtaining and implementing a Return to Work Plan is that the employee will no longer require a GP’s fit note, and will not need to acquire one unless they are still not working when discharged from the Fit for Work scheme.

What do employers need to do to implement Fit for Work?

Although it is not mandatory for an employer to refer employees for Fit for Work, or implement any recommendations that are made in a Return to Work Plan, it is recommended that employers at least inform their staff that Fit for Work is available.

The easiest way for an employer to do this would be to update their sickness absence policy, and ensure that staff are properly informed about any proposed policy changes.

After employees are aware of the scheme, all that is left for an employer to do is to monitor its staff absences, and consider making referrals for assessments (if a GP has not already done so), and finally to think about what can be done in the workplace to support any suggestions that are made in a Return to Work Plan.

Once an employer has identified the need for an employee to be referred to the scheme, it is extremely important that their explicit and informed consent is obtained at each of the following stages;

  • Before referral to the Fit for Work scheme, either by their GP or employer
  • Before the initial assessment is arranged and takes place
  • Before drafts of the Return to Work Plan are shared with their GP and employer
  • Before Fit for Work have any contact with the GP or employer.

You can find more advice about the scheme, and how to join, on the Fit for Work website: or over the telephone on 0800 032 6235 for England and Wales, and 0800 019 2211 for Scotland.

About the author

This guide has been written for ByteStart by Beth Baird, employment partner at Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP. For additional advice regarding the management of sickness absence and stress at work you can contact Beth Baird.

More help on managing employees

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