March 28, 2014

Introducing…the new Health and Work Service

A new government initiative, aimed at reducing sickness absence in the workplace, will soon be up and running.

The Health and Work Service, available in England, Scotland and Wales, is designed to address the problem of the million a year employees who are off  work for over four weeks, which costs employers around £9bn annually in sick pay and associated costs.

It is expected to be up and running nationally from April 2015, although some parts of the country could go “live” from October 2014.

The service will offer:

  • A health and work telephone helpline, plus online support for employers, employees and GPs
  • Access to state-funded occupational health assessments where an employee’s sickness absence has lasted four weeks or more.

GPs, employers and employees will be able to access independent and objective advice via the helpline and website on a 24/7 basis. The service will complement, rather than replace, existing occupational health provision.

A case manager will be appointed to support each employee through an assessment process. They will ensure their level of need is correctly identified and that appropriate steps are taken to get them back into work. It is expected that a core focus of the service will be dealing with musculoskeletal and mental health conditions.

How will an employee be referred to the service?

Once an employee has reached (or is expected to reach) four weeks of sickness absence, they will be referred to an occupational health professional by their GP. (A referral will be the default position and any reasons for non-referral will be limited and defined.)

In certain circumstances, employers may also refer an employee to the service if the GP has not already done so. Guidance will set out when an employer may refer an individual and any issues they should consider.

All referrals will be based on the informed consent of the employee.

The service will be under the overall direction of an Accredited Specialist in Occupational Medicine. The provider must be accredited by the Safe Effective Quality Occupational Health Service (SEQOHS) scheme which sets agreed standards for occupational health services.

Their expertise will ensure that the full range of issues which prevent an employee from returning to work are identified. Where appropriate, they will engage with the employer to gain a better understanding of the workplace and to discuss potential  interventions. As well as identifying the specific health condition, other non-health or non-work related issues will also be explored, as these may be causing or exacerbating ill-health (for example anxiety or stress).

What will happen next?

Following a referral, an initial assessment is likely to be conducted over the telephone. A face-to-face meeting will then be arranged with an appropriate Occupational Health Adviser where this is necessary.

The aim of the process will be to produce a “Return to Work Plan”, which will normally be presented in the form of a timetable. This will detail any obstacles and suggested interventions. It will contain specific advice and recommendations to assist with and enable the employee’s return to work. This will usually be provided to the employee, the employer and the GP.

The Return to Work Plan will provide evidence of fitness for work for the purposes of receiving Statutory Sick Pay. Currently, this evidence of fitness is provided by a ‘Fit Note’ issued by a GP. The GP will ensure that there is a valid Fit Note to cover the period from referral until a Return to Work Plan has been produced (usually two weeks). Where an employer is in receipt of a Return to Work Plan, a GP will no longer be required to issue a Fit Note. The employer will continue to be responsible for decisions about fitness for work and will be able to accept the Return to Work Plan as evidence for this purpose.

A tax exemption of up to £500 a year per employee towards medical treatments recommended by the Health and Work Service (or employer-arranged occupational health service) will also be introduced. Without this exemption, the payment would be treated as a taxable benefit in kind, liable to income tax and employer National Insurance contributions.

Where can I get further help and support?

Full details and guidance from the Government on how the scheme will operate in practice is awaited. In the meantime, further support and advice on managing long term sickness absence is available from our HR Advice Line. Please telephone an adviser on 0845 073 0240 who will be happy to guide you through the process.

References:

Eversheds HR Briefing – “First steps to the Government’s new sickness absence regime” – 17 March 2014

Department for Work and Pensions website

Gov.uk website

CIPD website

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