Managing sickness absence is an important concern for employers, given its financial implications. It is perceived that the current system does not do enough to encourage employees to return to work once they have gone off sick, and the Government is seeking to address this.
This October, the Government’s new Health and Work Service will be introduced in selected areas (yet to be announced) and will be rolled out nationwide by April next year. It replaces the compensation employers currently receive under the Percentage Threshold Scheme for Statutory Sick Pay, which is considered to be an outdated system and will eventually be abolished.
The idea behind the initiative is to get employees who are off sick back to work as soon as possible by funding intervention at an early stage. It involves occupational health assessments and advice on how to facilitate a return to work and avoid sickness absence.
Once an employee has been, or is expected to be off sick for four weeks or more, their GP will refer them to an occupational health professional for a free assessment to identify the issues preventing them from returning to work. If the GP fails to do so within this period, the employer may make the referral instead. Four weeks has been identified as an appropriate point for intervention as, according to an independent review, it is when long-term absence and claiming benefits becomes more likely.
Assessments will be holistic, also looking at issues not directly related to health or work which may nevertheless be a factor in the employee’s absence. However, referrals are not mandatory and may be deemed to be inappropriate in some limited circumstances. It is believed that only 5-10% of assessments will require a face-to-face meeting and the majority will therefore be carried out over the telephone.
Following their assessment, the employee will receive a tailored “return to work plan”. Any medical treatments recommended in the plan up to the value of £500 per year will not be taxed as a benefit in kind so that the employee does not lose out financially.
Generic and impartial advice will also be available to employers, employees and GPs via a telephone helpline and website.
Whilst the Health and Work Service may be of particular benefit to small and medium-sized companies who do not have their own occupational health services, it is also hoped that it will work together with and complement any existing service that some large companies already offer. It is estimated by the Government that more than half a million employees will be referred to the new system each year, reducing the time they spend off sick by 20%-40% and saving employers approximately £70 million a year.
Although savings will be made from the abolition of the Percentage Threshold Scheme for Statutory Sick Pay, there are concerns surrounding the level of funding for the new regime. The contract to implement the service is currently out for tender to a private contractor, and as a profit-making exercise the envisaged “assessments” could end up as brief telephone conversations and standardised reports. There is a question mark over how useful these will be to employers and how the Employment Tribunal will view the reasonableness of dismissals where they have used the service or followed their own policies.