Government reforms (1): Health and work service

sick leave - business man sneezingWhat do we already know?

In our January 2013 newsletter Latest Government Changes: Tackling sickness absence we updated you on the Government’s plans to tackle long-term workplace sickness absence with a new Government funded, independent, assessment and advisory service. This is to ensure employers receive bespoke, independent advice where sickness absence lasts more than four weeks. The assessment service will be provided by an occupational health professional to provide expert advice and assistance to support the employee’s return to work.

This was in response to the 2011 report, Health at work: an independent review of sickness absence, in which Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE made a number of recommendations to reduce workplace sickness absence and the cost of ill health on individuals, employers and the taxpayer.

What’s new?

The new occupational health assessment service, ‘Health and Work Service’, is due to be launched in late 2014. It will be delivered by Health Management, a MAXIMUS company. Health Management is reported to be the UK’s largest independent health provider and currently serves approximately 450 large public and private sector clients.

The Health and Work Service will operate such that employees will normally be referred by their GPs and the service is expected to provide:

  • an occupational health assessment when an employee reaches, or is expected to reach, more than 4 weeks’ sickness absence.
  • a case manager to support each employee through the assessment process to ensure their level of need is correctly identified along with appropriate steps to get them back to work.
  • more general health and work advice for GPs, employers and employees via the telephone and a website.
  • a return to work plan that will be shared with the employer and GP.
  • a tax exemption of up to £500 a year for each employee on payments for medical treatments recommended by the Health and Work Service, or an employer-arranged occupational health service.

The Health and Work Service is expected to launch on a phased basis beginning with the North of England, Midlands and Wales by late 2014, then nationally by May 2015. An identical Health and Work Service will be provided in Scotland.

What does this mean for employers?

The Government has reported that almost a million (960,000) employees were on sick leave for a month or more each year on average between September 2010 and October 2013. It hopes that the new Health and Work Service will cut sick pay costs to businesses by up to £165 million a year, as well as increase economic output by up to £900 million a year.

The service will be available to all employers, although inevitably it is likely to be of most benefit to smaller employers who would otherwise not routinely engage the services of occupational health services. Research carried out in 2011 showed that only one in ten small employers provided employees with access to occupational health services in the previous year; compared with eight in ten large employers. The new scheme will therefore ‘plug the gap’ for those employers with few employees who only need advice on a sporadic basis, and those who simply cannot afford to invest in full time occupational health services.

The Health and Work Service is therefore intended to complement, rather than replace or duplicate, any existing and more comprehensive occupational health service provided by an employer. When it is identified that employer provision is already available, it is envisaged that the service will work with it – for example, it might contact the employer’s service to discuss their involvement to date, or an employer service could take forward any recommended interventions.

As the GP will be the primary referral route, there should usually be no need for an employer to make a referral themselves.

As part of the service a ‘Return to Work Plan’ will be provided to the employee. This will be shared with the employer and the employee’s GP, subject to the employee’s consent. It will contain specific advice and recommendations about actions to assist with an employee’s return to work.   Following the issue of the Return to Work Plan, employers will continue to be responsible for decisions about fitness for work; although they will be able to accept the plan as evidence for this purpose. Employers will also share responsibility with the employee and the GP for taking forward the recommendations made in the plan.

Details of the service are still emerging and when we find out more we’ll be sure to let you know.