Fit for work assessments to end in 2018

Last week the government published “Improving Lives: The Future of Work, Health and Disability” which sets out an ambitious but welcome plan to get one million more disabled people into the UK workplace over the next 10 years. The document is informed by a recent government consultation, and also builds on other recent reports such as “Thriving at Work” and the “Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices” (both of which have previously featured on this blog).

The “Improving Lives” document offers a number of thoughts and initiatives to achieve this aim, and two are of particular importance to our employer audience at this time.

The Fit Note:

The Fit Note has now been a feature of the employment – and absence – landscape throughout the entirety of this decade. The Fit Note replaced the unlamented Sick Note, and the difference between the two is subtle but important; A Sick Note assumes that the absent employee is not able to undertake any work, whereas the Fit Note highlights where some work may be possible – albeit with minor adjustments by the employer and employee. It was hoped and expected that this change of emphasis would reduce the number of employees falling into long-term absence from work.

Yet the understanding and use of the service has been very much a slow-burn. The “Improving Lives” document highlights that only 6.6% of Fit Notes use the “may be fit for work” option on the form. This obviously suggests that some significant improvements are needed to the process. The document states;

“The review concluded that the fit note remains an important tool, but it is not always used effectively across the system to support people staying in or returning to work.”

The report goes on to suggest some improvements that can and should be considered in this area. It will no doubt be a little time before any further progress is made here, but employers should expect changes to the Fit Note process over the coming months and years.

The Fit for Work service:

The government press releases states;

“Also announced today are the next steps for the Fit for Work service. Its assessment services will come to an end in England and Wales on 31 March 2018 and 31 May 2018 in Scotland following low referral rates.”

This is a somewhat surprising development given that this service only actually began in 2015. Fit for Work (FfW) was designed to provide free assessments for ill employees who were absent from work for a period of four weeks or more. The aim of the assessment was to develop a return to work plan in as many cases as possible. This in turn was expected to ease the impact of long term absence on employees (and their families), employers, and indeed the national finances.

The original concept of FfW was a strong one. The initial intention was that General Practitioners (GPs) would be required to refer their patients to the service as soon as an individual had been absent from work for four weeks. This key condition was quietly removed from the eventual starting proposition however, which ensured that the service got off to a very slow start. This fact, combined with very limited funding for FfW and other factors (such as a confusion between FfW assessments and the unrelated work capability assessments used for state financial support), has resulted in many fewer referrals than was expected at outset, leading to the above announcement.

The Fit for Work helplines, website, and web-chat features will however be maintained beyond the above dates to provide employers, employees, and GPs with general health and work advice. An “Expert Working Group on Occupational Health” has been appointed to champion, shape and drive a programme of work to take an in depth look at the sector. Whilst this is welcome, it does suggest that there will be a hiatus for employers in this space whilst new initiatives are suggested, debated, agreed, communicated, and eventually implemented.

So any employer that has written the Fit for Work service into their absence policies and procedures will have to now formulate a new plan. Many employers will of course be able to take advantage of the Early Intervention tools made available for free as part of Group Income Protection policies. Others will want to use formal Occupational Health assessments, or ensure quick treatment via Private Healthcare arrangements. The requirements of each employer will vary, so please speak to your usual Jelf Consultant in the first instance if you need to discuss these options.

In the meantime we will obviously continue to keep our followers informed as to the progress of the recommendations made in the “Improving Lives” document as they become known.