The proposed Health and Work Service (HWS), a government initiative focused on supporting employees to return to work after a period of sickness absence, could make an important difference to UK employers.
The voluntary service is open to all employees that have been on sickness absence for more than four weeks, an estimated one million people a year. So it is no surprise that many employers and employees have been asking how this will affect them.
The main output of the HWS is the creation of a return-to-work plan, in most cases based on a phone assessment by a health professional. The focus of this will be advice and signposting to external services, and it will not provide interventions.
The introduction of the HWS will have a number of implications for employers.
Firstly, employers with existing occupational health services will have access to an additional external set of recommendations to help them implement effective interventions. Some employees will already feel they get appropriate support from their employer, and will not want to use this service. The decision is up to them.
Secondly, as an advice service, the onus will remain on employers to implement the return-to-work plan. Help is available through schemes such as Access to Work, and it has been announced that there will be a tax exemption of up to £500 a year per employee for interventions recommended by the HWS or an employer-arranged occupational health service.
Finally, small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) will be able to access advice that may previously have been too expensive. SMEs have always been seen as the primary user of this service. In theory, they should find it highly beneficial.
The HWS is due to be rolled out at the end of 2014.
Jenny Gulliford is a researcher at The Work Foundation