General practioner (GP) referrals have commenced in Betsi Cadwaladr and Sheffield and will expand across England and Wales. From 9 March, over 200 GP practices are able to refer individuals who have been, or are expected to be, absent from work for at least four weeks for an occupational health assessment or health advice.
Launched on 15 December 2014 through Health Management, the confidential and voluntary referral service is designed to help employers better understand and manage sickness absence. Employees will need to consent to be referred to the service.
Employers in Betsi Cadwaladr and Sheffield will now start receiving return-to-work plans with recommendations through the service.
These plans will be shared with the employee’s GP and employer, and can also act as evidence of sickness for pay purposes, which replaces the need for a sick note. In addition, they will signpost staff to services that will help them and provide a planned period to return to work.
With employers facing a bill of around £9 billion per year for sick pay and related costs, Fit for Work is predicted to cut annual sick pay costs to businesses by £80 million to £165 million a year.
Employers will be able to refer their staff in the autumn, once the roll out for GPs has been completed.
Workers will primarily be referred to the service by GPs, although employers will also be able to refer staff after they have been absent for more than four weeks.
Employers will remain responsible for decisions on managing workplace absence and providing statutory sick pay, but will now have access to free and impartial advice from occupational health professionals.
The service also includes an online library and telephone, email and online support for employers, employees and GPs.
Dr Lucy Goundry, clinical lead for the Fit for Work programme at Health Management, said: “Sickness absence in the workplace can put businesses at risk, particularly if employers have no policies in place to deal with it.
“Fit for Work will help take out the complexity and difficulties in rehabilitating employees with long-term illness back into work.
“Employers have long called for greater access to such a service, and we are delighted to be working alongside the DWP to provide an independent referral service that will make occupational health services accessible to the wider working population as well as provide a vital line of support for employers.”