UK-wide medical and dental defence organisation MDDUS is advising practices to update their sickness absence policies to reflect the new Fit for Work scheme currently being rolled out across the country.
The government is in the process of a phased launch of the new system, with both the English and Scottish schemes expected to be fully operational by May this year.
Sickness absence costs employers billions of pounds each year and, as well as reducing costs, the purpose of the new scheme is to provide an occupational health assessment and general health and work advice to employees, employers and GPs with the aim of helping individuals stay in or return to work.
MDDUS employment law adviser Liz Symon says: “We regularly deal with calls from practices on how to deal with long-term absence and it is hoped this new scheme will provide more transparency and help both employers and employees.
“Practices should update their sickness absence policies to reflect the new service and inform employees of any changes. It is hoped the Fitness for Work scheme will aid employees’ return to work and help employers better manage sickness absence in their organisations.
“It’s in the best interests of the practice to ensure they create a productive workplace. It’s not simply a case of preventing absence, but supporting employees if they need time off.”
There are two elements to the new service – assessment and advice. Once the employee has reached four weeks of sickness absence, they will be referred by their GP for an assessment by an occupational health professional, who will look at all the issues preventing the employee from returning to work. It is important to note that participation in the scheme is not compulsory and the employee must give their consent.
Following assessment, Fit for Work will provide employees with a return-to-work plan. “This plan should include recommendations to help them return to work as well as information on how to get appropriate help and advice,” says Symon.
Employers, employees and GPs will be able to access advice by phone or via the website. The advice provided will be free, independent and objective and should be focused on getting the employee back to work. ?
“Dealing with long-term absence requires balancing the employee’s health needs while also trying to manage the needs of the practice. It’s usually related to one specific medical issue such as recovering from an operation or stress and depression.
“On the employee’s return to work, it may be advisable for them to initially work shorter hours or take on alternative duties but this should be included as part of the return-to-work plan.
“If the employee is not deemed fit to work, you do not have to hold a role open indefinitely, but terminating the contract on the grounds of capability can be a long and sensitive process.”