Improving "absence management" remains high on many employer's agenda. There is no doubt that the vast majority of absences are genuine. However, some employers believe that a small minority of staff exploit a system that does not promote their return to work. Conversely some employees want to return earlier but the system does not do enough to encourage this. There is another very challenging category, namely the employee whose condition has been caused by workplace issues and who is medically unable to return until these are resolved.The Government anticipates that the number of days lost through workplace absence should reduce if their proposed reforms are successful. The new Health and Work Service is due to be introduced next April. Its purpose is to facilitate an earlier return to work for a significant percentage of long term absentees. The key means of achieving this is to offer a Government funded occupational health assessment for employees who are absent for 4 or more weeks. Employers are helping to fund this because, since April this year, they can no longer reclaim their statutory sick pay contributions where these exceeded 13% in any month.
Whilst the rules of the new scheme have not been finalised we have a reasonable idea of how things are likely to operate. Employees will be referred mainly by their GPs but also possibly by their employer. The key aim will be to devise a Return to Work Plan.
Will these reforms have the intended impact? Most assessments will be by telephone. The complex cases will involve a face to face assessment. Will those undertaking these reviews reach a different medical conclusion than the employee's GP? Unlikely. Will they address issues that GPs don't address? Possibly but this may be doing a dis-service to the average practitioner who will no doubt recognise that it is often in the employee's own interests to get back to work sooner rather than later. Will they be able to provide a sufficiently detailed plan if there are time/cost constraints (similar to those affecting GPs) when assessing patients? That's hard to tell but my experience from the legal side of the fence is that a detailed and time consuming medical analysis is often required in the difficult cases. More fundamentally do the employees have to co-operate? At present the answer to that question is no. As a result the Government has estimated that between 40 and 80% of those who are absent for 4 or more weeks may be assessed. If it transpires that the figure is at the lower end then this may not result in the anticipated improvements that the Government is seeking to achieve.
In summary, it is not clear whether the new system will be a success. One knock on effect is that those employers who contract with external Occupational Health providers and who had been hoping to reduce their external spend may have to put their cost cutting plans on hold to see if the Government delivers on its promises.