Focusing on long terms absences, the DWP have recently revealed that in recent years, 1 in 25 employees were on sick leave for more than a month each year. Following a major review carried out in 2011 by Dame Carol Black, the then National Director for Health and Work and now an expert adviser to the Department of Health, the government decided to introduce a "Health and Work Service" as part of a plan to help both employers and employees manage long-term sickness absence.
It was announced last week that the service will be in full-force by the end of May 2015, but will start being rolled-out across the country from late 2014.
The Health and Work Service will provide an occupational health assessment and general health and work advice to employees, employers and GPs to help people with a health condition to stay in or return to work. The way that this is intended to work is that when an employee has been absent for four weeks, or is expected to be absent for four weeks, their GP will normally make a referral for an occupational health assessment. The occupational health professional will then look at all of the issues preventing the employee from returning to work. A return-to-work plan will be discussed with the employee, and subsequently shared with the employee's GP and their employer.
Each referral will be appointed a case manager to support the employee during the occupational health assessment process and to ensure that their individual requirements are identified and addressed, along with the appropriate steps to get them back to work
In addition, general advice regarding the Health and Work Service will be available for employees, employers and GPs online with additional telephone support available if required.
It was also announced last week that in England and Wales, this service will be implemented by Health Management Limited. In Scotland, the Health and Work Service will be delivered by the Scottish government.
It is hoped that the introduction of such a service will reduce the time that employees are absent due to long term ill health situations. Studies have repeatedly shown that early intervention in such situations is more likely to result in an early return to work. I anticipate that this service will be of particular benefit to the many small and medium sized employers in the UK who do not currently have ready access to occupational health advice. It is also likely to raise the profile of the benefits of occupational health advice more generally, and, hopefully, this will encourage employers to use the service.
If employers are considering dismissing an employee who is absent long term then it is very important that appropriate medical advice is obtained. Care also needs to be taken to ensure that, if the employee has a disability, that the employer complies with their obligations in terms of the Equality Act.