Following a trial period of the new ‘Fit for Work’ initiative, this service is now open to all companies and employees across England and Wales (Scotland having introduced this scheme some time ago).

The purpose of the Scheme is to provide employers, employees and their GPs with access to work-related health advice – I’m sure many of us have received a medical report indicating that the GP is unable to comment on matters relating to whether or not the individual is able to fulfil their role, so this Scheme looks to plug that gap without the need to instruct costly independent occupational health specialists, or at least that’s the plan!

So who initiates the referral?

Referrals can be made to the Scheme from a number of parties but generally will be initiated by the individual’s GP in the first instance and this can be done any time from the first day of absence.

However, once an individual has been absent from work for four weeks or more, the employer can then take the initiative and make a direct referral as long as the following criteria is met:

  •  the individual is still employed
  • has been absent from work for four weeks or more
  • has a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work
  • has not received a Fit for Work assessment in the last 12 months or a Return to Work Plan in the last 12 months
  • Has provided consent to be referred

What does the assessment involve?

Following the initial referral a telephone assessment will be undertaken within two days of the referral being made.

The assessment is carried out by an occupational health professional who becomes the employee’s case manager through to the end of the process. The assessment will involve the health professional taking a holistic or ‘biopsychosocial’ approach to look into all of the health, work, and other issues, e.g. personal and social that may be affecting the employee’s ability to return to work. The assessment will include questions about the impact of their condition and their job role and will result in the formation of a Return to Work Plan, which will reflect the assessment, advice and recommendations agreed with the employee to help them return to work more quickly. Where the employee provides their consent, this Return to Work Plan will then be forwarded to the individual’s GP and employer.

There may be some occasions where a face to face assessment is required, and the Scheme operators intend to undertake these assessments within five days of the referral being made.

What happens if you can’t agree to the Return to Work Plan?

The decision to implement the Return to Work Plan remains with the employer in discussion with the employee and where appropriate their GP. Whilst it is encouraged that the recommendations are adopted, the same principles apply as indicated in the Equality Act 2010, in relation to making reasonable adjustments and where it is not reasonably practicable for the employer to make the adjustments highlighted on the Return to Work Plan, they will need to discuss this with the employee and confirm the business reasons why they are unable to accommodate the adjustments recommended.

What happens if the individual does not consent?

Depending on the individual’s contractual obligations failing to provide their consent to attend or partake in an occupational health assessment can be considered a breach of contract or at least a failure to follow a reasonable management instruction and so instigating the disciplinary process is one option. However, the Fit for Work Scheme makes it very clear to the employee that this is a voluntary scheme and so it would appear to conflict with the employer’s demands to take part.

We would urge anyone who finds themselves in this precarious position to pick up the telephone and speak to us for further guidance on the best way to proceed.

Do you still need the ‘Fit Note’?

The Return to Work Plan can be used as the medical evidence to confirm that an individual is fit to return to work in place of the usual medical certificate indicating a date on which the employee can return and can be submitted as the relevant documentation for Statutory Sick Pay purposes.

What should you do next?

Review your current Sickness Absence Policy and update where necessary to incorporate the use of the referral scheme when managing long term absence. However, we would still recommend that you make provisions for accessing independent advice and guidance where necessary.

Review your current absence records and identify any individuals who may benefit from referral to the scheme and discuss this with them at your next review meeting.

Remember to keep in contact!

We would always recommend that employers keep in regular contact with their employees during any long term sickness and where possible, hold regular review meetings with the individual to keep updated and ensure that the individual is supported during their absence. For more details on managing long term absence please go to our download page.

Time will tell if the Scheme has the impact which the Government intends, namely, to encourage individuals to return to work and reduce the level of long term sickness absence across UK companies which currently sits at a staggering 870,000 absences each year according to the Department of Work & Pensions.

For more details in relation to the scheme please see our ‘Fit for Work’ Factsheet or contact us on 01942 727 200.