Employers, raise your hands if you’ve used the government’s fit for work service. Given the little publicity there has been on the service, would suggest that few hands will be shown. Since September 2015 employers (as well as GPs) can refer staff members with a sickness absence period of a month. The Service works with employees to identify potential obstacles that prevent them from returning to work; health, work related and personal issues. Where appropriate a return to work plan will be drawn up, agreed with the staff member and shared with the employer. This plan may include recommendations for the employer, (e.g. around reasonable adjustments to working arrangements), but it’s the employer’s decision whether to enact.
This all sounds reasonable stuff and it’s free. But there are multiple stumbling blocks which prevent this Service being taken up; for those with an occupational health service, very familiar problems.
The Service relies on employee consent. Too often occupational health services are perceived as a threat. Whilst independent of the employer, there is every chance that Fit for Work will arouse suspicion and concern. Managers often want (and are disappointed) that occupational health does not make judgements on “genuine” sickness. Organisations frequently get upset when occupational health services advise on management actions; believing that this raises expectations for employees that are unrealistic or unachievable. Whilst no reflection on Fit for Work; occupational health services can work with limited access to organisational information and provide no (or unhelpful) information.
But when working effectively, occupational health services can significantly benefit employers and employees alike, reducing sickness absence and improving a person’s quality of life. The Fit for Work Service should be an invaluable resource for those employed in or managing organisations with no occupational health service. To achieve this the Service must overcome these many obstacles, be proactive in publicity, be transparent on the number of cases handled, address employee and employer concerns positively, and build on examples of success. If not there is a risk that the Service will remain simply a good idea.
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