The government announced earlier in the year that employers would no longer be able to recover statutory sick pay payments from the government. The aim of this was to have the appropriate funds to launch the ‘Fit to Work’ service later in the year.
The service is aimed to assist businesses who don’t have a current occupational health service to assist them with dealing with long term sickness absence.
The service will be launched from the end of 2014, with a plan to be fully operation by May 2015. And the aim will be to start reviewing an employee’s condition after 4 weeks of absence from employment. This does not mean that the employee can be dismissed after 4 weeks of absence; however it does mean that the employer, with the assistance of the new service and the employees GP, can begin to review the employee’s condition and obtain help, subject to the potential longevity of absence of the employee.
On a positive note, the scheme does give some better clarity as to what is meant by ‘long term sickness’ and infers that any absence longer than 4 weeks will now be considered long term. Again this doesn’t infer that a dismissal can take place if an employee is absent for more than 4 weeks but it does mean that the employer can start asking some key questions after this stage.
Under the new scheme, the employee will first report their illness through their GP, a fit to work (sick note) will be issued indicating the prospective initial period of absence. If the GP determines at this stage that the employee will be absent from work for longer than 4 weeks, they can then make the decision to make an instant referral to the ‘Fit to Work’ Service. The employee does have to give their consent here; if they don’t the GP can’t make a referral.
If the GP doesn’t make a referral in the first 4 weeks, the employer can do so themselves after the first 4 weeks have ended. However the hurdle here is that the employee must give their consent to make a referral.
The service will then appoint the employee with a case manager who will make an initial assessment of the employee’s condition, based on what the GP has stated in their referral letter, which will allegedly be much more detailed that the current sick note! The case manager will, having discussed with the employee their individual needs, identify any obstacles which may be preventing the employee from working and try to work out together a ‘Return to Work Plan’. At this stage the case manager will not consult with the employer, unless they believe there are issues requiring clarification before putting the plan together.
The Plan will identify measures, steps and interventions that may be required in order to get the employee back to work. It should be noted that the Plan will only be a recommendation, and is not a government mandate that the employer has to follow. It would however be highly unadvisable to ignore the plan completely.
If the employee consents to the Plan it will then be shared with the GP and the employer. The employer will have the right to contact the Fit to Work service at this stage and highlight any errors, impractical measures or inconsistent facts the employee may have told, or not told the service. The Plan can then be reviewed by the service and amendments made. However this must again be with the consent of the employee!
It would seem the scheme is a little one sided and heavily relies on the employee firstly being truthful in their submissions and also having faith that the case mangers (who will be health aware professionals but not legally trained in any way) can identify issues where consultation with the employer is going be required.
The Plan should then in theory be followed by the parties and the employee should be able to eventually return to work. Once a Plan has been issued, the employee will not be required to return to the GP for any further sick notes, unless it is required within the individuals Plan.
The employee will be prompted by the service at each stage of the plan to ask if they, or the employer has been compliant. If they haven’t or the Plan is not working, further assessment will take place (again mainly over the phone!) and a revised plan may be issued.
If the employee does not return to work within 3 months of initially reporting the absence, the service will discharge the employee from the scheme. The employer will then have to pick up the mantle and manage their absence from here via their own company processes.
The employer can of course utilise their own occupational health facility if they already have one in place to run concurrently with the assessments and guidance given by the service. Employers are also encouraged to maintain regular communication with the employee during this time and the service should not be seen as a ‘babysitter’.
The DWP will be issuing more detailed guidance for employers towards the end of the year, which should hopefully fill us all with a little more confidence that the service will have an effective role in long term absence management. We wait with baited breath!
The service will also be launching an advice phone line and website, similar to that of ACAS, which employers, employees and GP’s can call to ask for advice on a case. Employers can also call their individual case manager if they have any concerns. Be aware though neither will give legal advice to you. How helpful this is actually going to be is yet to be seen.
Once the employer’s guidance is fully published, and implementation dates are published, we will be supplying our clients with updated absence management policies in order that they compliment the service’s requirements.
In remembrance of Dennis Chapman 1951 -2015