Reducing absence and helping employees back to work is a major challenge for many organisations. But with the government having launched its Fit for Work service in December 2014, employers now have another tool to help keep their workforces healthy and productive.
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- The Fit for Work service began its phased roll-out in December 2014.
- It offers health information and advice to employers and staff, as well as a referral for a health assessment for employees who are off work.
- The service has received mixed reviews, but is largely seen as a positive accompaniment to workplace health benefits.
The service is made up of two elements. The first, which can be accessed by employers, employees and GPs, provides work-related health information and advice online and by phone.
The second offers a free referral for an occupational health assessment, where an employee has been, or is expected to be, off work for at least four weeks. With this, a trained healthcare professional will spend up to 45 minutes with them, putting together a return-to-work plan they can use with their employer and GP.
At present, referrals can only be made by an employee’s GP, but this option will be extended to employers in England and Wales this autumn, with Scotland following suit next spring.
Although the full service is still to be rolled out, Mary Carter-Lee, HR director at Fit for Work, is pleased with the use it has received so far. “We’ve had a great response to the online and telephone health information, especially through the online chat facility, and the number of referrals we receive from GPs is building every week as awareness grows,” she says.
Musculoskeletal and mental health problems are the most common reasons for referrals received by the service. This is in keeping with group income protection statistics, where these two conditions make up around 40% of claims. “We’re producing more and more return-to-work plans every week and have already seen employees successfully go back to work,” Carter-Lee adds.
However, many in the healthcare benefits industry are concerned they have not run into the service yet. Axa PPP Healthcare has yet to see a referral to its occupational health services for someone who is also using Fit for Work, while Matthew Judge, director at Jelf Group, has seen very little awareness among employer clients. “It’s still below the radar,” he adds. “This is probably a good thing at this stage as by gradually rolling out the service it can deal with the growing demand, but more work will need to be done to raise awareness among employers and GPs.”
These areas are in hand, with a series of talks, conferences and exhibitions being used to raise awareness of Fit for Work among its target audiences. “We rolled out the service steadily to GPs, with ambassadors visiting surgeries to explain how to refer a patient and what a doctor can expect,” says Carter-Lee. “We’re also working with partner organisations such as Acas to help spread the message in the workplace.”
There are also some concerns about the nature of the service being delivered. Mark Witte, principal at Aon Employee Benefits, points to the experience that some of his employer clients have had with independent occupational health providers. “Some were concerned that the advice they received didn’t take into account the needs of the business or the employee’s role,” he explains. ”Hopefully, this won’t be the case with the Fit for Work service, but I can see some employers, especially the larger ones, preferring to use their own service.”
And with the service only kicking in once an employee has been off work for four weeks, there also concerns that any interventions may come too late. However, Joy Reymond, head of rehabilitation services at Unum, says this is not the case. “Four weeks is really the optimum time to intervene,” she says. “Any earlier and you risk inflating someone’s problem; any later and it’s harder to get them back to work.”
But while there may still be concerns, the insurance industry’s response to Fit for Work is largely positive. “I can see it being particularly good for smaller employers that might not have access to occupational health services,” says Witte. “By putting these types of service on the agenda, it has to be good for workplace health.”