Government backs independent assessment service to address sick-note culture
The Government has given the green light to the creation of an independent assessment and advisory service, aimed at stopping people from falling out of work and on to long-term sickness benefits.
The state-funded service – which was first proposed in November 2011, following a Government-commissioned review of sickness absence – will be delivered by occupational-health professionals and will signpost users to appropriate interventions, and provide employers and employees with advice on overcoming the barriers that prevent a speedy return to work.
It is estimated the scheme, which would kick in for cases of sickness absence lasting more than four weeks, could save employers up to £160m a year in statutory sick pay and increase economic output by up to £900m.
Currently, only 10 per cent of employees of small firms receive bespoke, independent advice for cases of sickness absence lasting more than four weeks. According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the lack of advice or support on this issue is one of the main barriers faced by employers, who are further hindered because the vast majority of fit notes declare employees to be unfit for work.
Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud said: “Long-term sickness absence is a burden to business, to the taxpayer, and to the thousands of people who get trapped on benefits when they could actually work.
“So, for the first time, all employers, big or small, will have access to a service that offers the early support they need to keep people in work and fulfil their aspirations.”
According to David Frost, former director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, who co-led the review, the service will give “clear advice, on which a business can make a judgement about when and in what circumstances their employee will return after a period of absence”.
A further proposal – to introduce a job-brokering service to help long-term sick employees find new work before they become dependent on the benefits system – was rejected. Instead, the new assessment and advisory service will signpost employees in this position to a free Internet job-matching service, launched in November last year.
Frost’s co-lead reviewer, national director for health at work Dame Carol Black, added that the new service would also “provide much-needed support for GPs too, so they can spend more time helping their patients and less time having to police the benefits system”.
However, Dr Richard Heron, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine, warned: “The effectiveness of the new service will only be realised with improved access to quality-assured specialist occupational-health advice and tangible support, together with positive incentives for employee, employer and GP to use them.”
Among the other proposals contained in the Black/Frost review, the Government also accepted a recommendation to revise fit-note guidance to ensure that judgements about fitness to work emphasise the importance of assessing an individual’s health condition in relation to work in general, rather than just a specific role. Revised guidance will be published early this year.
While welcoming much of the Government’s response, EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation expressed concern at the absence of any proposals to improve the effectiveness of the fit note. Its most recent sickness-absence survey, carried out last year, showed that 11 per cent of its members found the fit note less helpful than the previous system, while almost 60 per cent said it had made no difference.
EEF said it wants to see more action to embed the principles behind the fit note to change attitudes and behaviour, and encourages the introduction of the electronic fit note as soon as possible.
IOSH stressed that such a change in culture goes further than GPs, with its head of policy and public affairs Richard Jones saying: “We would like more employers to understand the business case for good health and safety and to recognise that, as well as benefiting workers, good feelings about work have been linked to higher profitability, productivity and customer and worker loyalty.”
The Institution has also long-called for the removal of tax disincentives for certain employer-provided therapies. In response to a recommendation in the report to allow medical treatments, or vocational rehabilitation targeted at keeping sick employees in work eligible for tax relief, the Government was non-committal, saying it would make a decision in the 2013 Budget.
Added Jones: “IOSH would like to see the Government take a broader approach to removing tax barriers for employer-provided therapies that support vocational rehabilitation, where these are evidence-based and medically recommended.”
The Government response to the Black/Frost review can be found at: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/health-at-work-gov-response.pdf
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