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Employers: How to get your Staff Back to Work

Almost hidden away with other news last week was the Fitness to work review which the Government released and which could have important relevance for small and medium size employers in trying to address absence issues amongst their workforce.

The Government introduced the ‘Fitness for work’ (or ‘fit note’) form in April 2010 that replaced the more traditionally ‘sick note’ that GPs provided when someone had been, or was likely to be, unfit for work for more than 7 days. Under the new note system, the emphasis was more on what a GP felt an individual could do, rather than confirm that they were generally unfit to go to work. The note would provide advice to the employer and individual to support people in returning to or staying in work.

At the same time, a number of ‘Fit for Work Services’ pilots were introduced across the country with the aim of supporting small and medium size enterprises to improve absence management of its employees who were at an early stage of sick absence and where there was not an Occupational Health (OH) service provided by the company, and the issued report makes an initial conclusion as to the schemes success –or otherwise.

The main conclusions of the report were on the whole quite positive. That was despite lower take up of the service then planned and difficulty in gaining access to GPs to explain the service and to encourage them to consider the scheme and refer their patients. The headline figures though were encouraging: 74% of people referred to the pilot service returned to work within the first 12 month period, with 18% still absent from work and a further 8% now unemployed.

What seemed to work well was that people would in the main initially be referred to a OH professional either by telephone or in person who would assess the individual and then agree an action plan of steps to take to allow the person to return to work. The support provided to the employee ranged from ways to improve their health (diet, lifestyle, ergonomics etc), to address mental health issues (getting financial advice if debt was a contributing factor to say stress/depression) to arranging a phased return to work with the employer.

The pilot service is being extended to March 2013 but the conclusion from the report’s co-author author Jim Hillage is that in the current economic climate it is not likely that the scheme will be rolled out nationally and will require support from elsewhere. It is felt that the way forward may be to find a way for GPs to work directly with employers in order to help their staff return to work as soon as possible..

What this all suggests is that some form of OH intervention for employees absent from work is clearly necessary and that the 11 pilots held across the UK indicates that they are successful, with three quarters of people returning to, or staying at, their workplace. The issue though will be funding. Larger employees generally speaking tend to have their own OH service so this will not interest them. But for the small and medium size enterprise where regular or long term absence can really bear down on productivity and cost they are unlikely to be able to afford such a service.

The way forward would seem to be for employers to engage with local GPs in order to commission some kind of OH service to help individuals get back to work promptly but the challenge would seem to be to get those GPs even engaged in this kind of initiative and that will require a good deal of effort.