Fit for Work service launches to help long-term sick
A new service designed to help employees on long-term sickness return to work has just gone live across England and Wales. Dr. Lucy Goundry explains how the service works and how it could benefit both employees and employers.
According to government statistics, around 815,000 working people in England each year  have sickness absence of four weeks or more. Research indicates that, without support, a significant proportion will struggle to return to their jobs – and that’s where Fit for Work comes in. It is an independent scheme, set up to support and advise employed patients who have been, or are likely to be, off work for a period of four weeks or more. It’s a free and confidential service run by health and work professionals, who will listen to people’s concerns and help them with a personalised and practical step-by-step Return to Work Plan.
Since July, all GPs in England and Wales have been able to offer their working patients a referral to the new service, which includes an in-depth assessment, followed by a personalised Return to Work Plan and managed support to get back to their jobs.
Research suggests that if you can help address the wider obstacles to people returning to and staying in work, it can support people back to work sooner and help prevent them falling out of employment. The service is based on recommendations from the Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence report by Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE, and is entirely voluntary.
The service will also help employers reduce the impact of long-term sickness absence on their businesses, and is expected to be of particular value in small and medium-sized businesses where there is no, or limited, employer occupational health support available. It is estimated that only 31 per cent of employees  currently have access to occupational health services through their place of work. Fit for Work will offer a line of support both for employees who want to get back to work but are struggling to do so, as well as for employers, who may be finding the negative effects of long-term absenteeism difficult for their business.
To give an example of how the service can work for people, we can look at one of our case studies, Lisa (whose name has been changed), a 56-year-old production administrator at a trailer manufacturing plant in South Yorkshire, who was referred to us by her GP. Lisa has osteoarthritis in her knees, which can flare up, causing a lot of stiffness and pain, making it very hard for her to continue working during these flare-ups. Once her GP referred her to us, she had a telephone assessment with a Fit for Work case manager on the same day. Her case manager helped her to create a Return to Work Plan, which was then shared with her employer.
Lisa’s case manager also spoke to her employer on her behalf, who subsequently agreed to complete ergonomic and risk assessments in the workplace, a suggestion made in her Return to Work Plan. The plan helped to guide Lisa through the process of getting back to work in a way that suited her, and she is now being rehabilitated back to work. For those worried about the extra cost things like risk assessments may incur, the government has also introduced a tax exemption of up to £500 (per year, per employee) on medical treatments recommended to help employees return to work. This will be applicable to treatments recommended by occupational health professionals in Fit for Work.
Lisa’s experience demonstrates how Fit for Work can work with both employees and employers to find a solution which suits all parties. Although currently employees can only be referred to Fit for Work by their GP, from autumn 2015 employers will also be able to refer their employees who they think would benefit from the service. In the next year, we want to focus on reaching as many people as possible across England and Wales, with referrals from both GPs and employers, and helping those worrying about being off work sick back to work in a way that suits them.
Dr. Lucy Goundry is clinical director for the Fit for Work service
2. YouGov poll for the consultancy Croner of workers surveyed said their employer did not provide OH services, such as health information, counselling, wellbeing programmes or health checks.
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