Provided by Health Management, the service includes an online library, telephone, email and online support for employers, staff and GPs, as well as occupational-health-related assessments.
This support is for employees who have been, or are expected to be, absent from work for at least four weeks. Staff will be referred by GPs or employers. Since 13 January, this has been a voluntary duty only for GPs.
This voluntary duty was first rolled out to 20 GPs in the Sheffield area, and will be further expanded in the spring.
Lord Freud, minister for welfare reform, said at the time of the launch: “Providing support will help to reduce the length of time employees take off sick, which will cut sick pay costs and reduce the chances of people falling out of work.”
Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at Jelf Employee Benefits, said: “The service [caters for] swathes of employers who do not currently have access to occupational health. It has been much watered down from the original starting position, with the removal of the requirement that the GP must refer any absence of four weeks or more to the service. This is now a voluntary duty only on GPs.
“I’m also rather concerned that the service won’t be accessible via employer referrals until the four-week mark, and it’s possible that the employee will be discharged from the service as early as three months, potentially only leaving two months to make a difference.
“Employers will also need to be prepared to understand, adapt to and engage with return-to-work plans.
Fit for work, guidance for employers was published on 2 January by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). It clarifies the tax exemption available on the cost of medical care for employees who are off sick, and confirms that it is limited to £500 per employee for each tax year.
Staff will be discharged from Fit for Work when they have returned to work (including a phased return to work), when the service can no longer offer further assistance, or if a return to work has not been possible after three months.
Herbert said: “The document does allow employers an insight into the practicalities of using the service, and also allows organisations to plan how their absence management policies could be altered to reflect inclusion of this option.”
Freud added: “Being in work is good for people’s wellbeing and it is also important for business growth that sickness absence is managed properly.”
The DWP predicts that Fit for Work will cut sick pay costs for businesses by £80 million to £165 million a year.