Originally called the Health and Work Service, in October 2014 the Government renamed it Fit for Work ("FFW"). According to the Government the purpose of the service is threefold:
1. to help employers better manage sickness absence;
2. to complement the service GPs provide to employees who are off sick; and
3. to support employees at work and if they are off sick in a way that's right for them.
There are two aspects to the service, firstly it will provide work related health advice to employees but also, crucially, it will provide free access to occupational health assessments.
On 16 December 2014 the Government launched its FFW website and in doing so the first aspect of the FFW service was made available. Employees and employers alike can now visit this website or phone the free advice line to receive "free, expert and impartial work-related health advice". The website allows both employers and employees to chat online to a specialist adviser or email them a question. On the website there is also a "library of advice" which provides resources to employees, employers and GPs on a variety of topics relating to health and work.
According to the FFW website the occupational health referral aspect of the system will be rolled out over a period of months but does not state exactly when this will be. It is though expected that the system will be rolled out over January to May 2015.
In the meantime the Government has published guidance on the FFW scheme. The guidance is split into three documents - one for employees, one for employers and one for GPs. All three pieces of guidance contain a helpful frequently asked questions section.
The guidance for employees explains that FFW will provide them with the option of being referred for a free occupational health assessment if they have been or are likely to be off sick from work for four weeks or more. According to the guidance, following any referral, the occupational health adviser will assess the individual's circumstances and provide recommendations of how the employee can return to work. These recommendations will be known as a Return to Work Plan.
The guidance makes clear that it is open to the employee to ask their GP or employer to be referred under the FFW service and no referral can be made without the employee's consent. Moreover where a Return to Work Plan has been issued, the employee will not need a fit note as evidence of their sickness absence. Where an employee has been referred and provided with a Return to Work Plan, they cannot be referred again within 12 months. In addition, employees will not be able to refer themselves and instead it must be their employer or GP who refers them.
From 1 January 2015 the Government has also introduced a tax exemption of up to £500 per employee per tax year for employers who fund the costs of medical treatments recommended by a healthcare professional as part of the FFW scheme. The guidance for employers provides more information on this exemption.
The guidance for employers suggests that they update their sickness absence policies to make reference to the availability of the FFW service, albeit employers are not required to refer their employees to FFW. Also employers are not required to follow the recommendations in a Return to Work Plan. However, it may be the case that any failure to follow such recommendations will be a factor considered by a Tribunal, where the employee in question suffers from a disability and raises a claim for a failure to make reasonable adjustments. Employers need to consider how any Return to Work Plans will be dealt with and whether any training of their managers on the FFW system is required.
It is hoped that the FFW service will achieve its aims of helping employers deal more effectively with sickness absence and supporting employees in their return to work. It is likely that the service will be particularly helpful for those small and medium sized employers who do not have the resources to fund an occupational health service themselves.