Regular readers of LAWmail may recall reports from earlier in the year that the Government is in the process of setting up a new Health and Work Service to assess sick workers who are off for four weeks or more.
The new service follows a major review of sickness absence carried out in 2011 which revealed that sickness costs employers £9 billion per year in sick pay and associated costs.
The Government recently announced that the new service will be delivered by private healthcare providers Health Management Limited. The scheme will be fully implemented across the UK by May 2015, although a pilot scheme will be run in the North of England, the Midlands and Wales in late 2014. Funding for the service has been sourced through the abolition of the Statutory Sick Pay percentage threshold scheme earlier this year. That scheme permitted employer to reclaim SSP where the total SSP bill exceeded 13% of the employer’s NI contributions for the month.
Dame Carol Black’s report, published in November 2011, identified that one of the key barriers preventing employers from making decisions is access to sound medical opinion about a sick employee’s fitness for work. It noted that GPs’ primary concern is the care of patients; there is simply no incentive for them to consider the cost of sickness on the employer and state. Of course, many employers are all too aware of this weakness and the associated headache of managing absence based on sketchy GP reports which give little practical advice on the employee’s limitations for work.
And let’s be clear; the risks of getting the absence management process wrong can be substantial. If the management process is likely to lead to the employee’s dismissal there is an obvious risk of an unfair dismissal claim (where the employee has more than two years’ service). However, often employers also face the risk of disability HR claims if the employee’s illness amounts to a disability. It is this aspect of the process that frequently throws an employer. Most managers will not have a medical background therefore it is difficult for them to gauge whether an employee is disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act. Unfortunately, many GPs do not feel comfortable making this call either and view the diagnosis of disability as a matter for an occupational health specialist.
As a result, employers are often forced to turn to private occupational health service providers for more detailed information in order to better understand the employee’s situation and the risks involved with managing the absence. Inevitably, there is a cost for these services with which many small and medium businesses struggle. This is where the new Health and Work Service hopes to bring about a sea-change, providing practical and free help for employers managing sickness absence.
Under the new scheme an employee will be referred to the service by their GP when the absence reaches (or is expected to reach) the four week mark. The service will then assess the employee and provide a return to work plan to be shared with the employer and GP. In addition to providing employee assessments and reports, the new service is expected to provide general health and work advice to GPs, employers and employees through a website and helpline.
The Government hopes that the Health and Work Service will save employers £165 million per year in sick pay and, on the basis that it helps workers return to productive service, increase economic output by £900 million a year. It seems obvious that these targets will only be achieved if the service is able to provide clear, quality medical advice to employers that they can rely upon to manage absence effectively.
However, the proposals continue to leave a number of unanswered questions about the effectiveness of the service. For example, will the employee be assessed by telephone or in person? Will the system become overloaded, resulting in waiting lists and rushed, box-ticking reports? What type of medical professionals will be assessing the employee? Will they take time to understand the nature of the employee’s job and workplace? How helpful will the return to work plans be in practice? Nonetheless, despite uncertainty about the value of the service, there is no doubt that the proposals are welcomed as a step in the right direction for employers struggling to manage sickness absence.