We’ve all had a good summer and, having consumed our fair share of barbeque food, autumn is on the horizon.

This autumn brings the Government’s latest initiative, the Fit for Work Service (FfW), previously called the Health and Work Service.  Continuing the intention to reduce the cost of long-term incapacity, this latest change is designed to tackle employee sickness from the fourth week of absence, with the aim of reducing the likelihood of a short-term absence developing into a longer term incapacity.  With cost saving in mind, we run through the process and consider if this can actually be achieved.

Initially GPs will be encouraged, and possibility incentivised, to refer patients to the FfW after four weeks of absence.  A review and assessment process to understand what is preventing the employee from returning to work will follow, ending with the issue of a report confirming what work related tasks an employee can and cannot complete, along with a return to work plan.  Additional support will be available via a helpline and website.

Should any of the recommended return to work therapies be funded by the employer (up to the value of £500) then the employee will be able to receive the treatment without incurring a benefit in kind tax charge.  Additionally, the employer will not have to pay National Insurance contributions on the money spent.

These changes reflect the importance of early intervention when an employee falls ill.  As support in this area improves, the Government expects fewer cases of long-term absence to arise.  In conjunction with this, business performance and efficiency should also improve as employees return to work earlier, and costs relating to absence fall.

The intention is good, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.  It is well known that the previous initiative regarding ‘fit notes’ has failed and there is plenty of scepticism over the assessment process for the Employment and Support Allowance.

So, what should employers consider when integrating this new regime into their business?

1. Does the company reclaim occupational sick pay costs via the Government’s Percentage Threshold Scheme?  If this currently happens then consideration needs to be given to the impact of not being able to reclaim sickness costs, as this Scheme ceased with effect from 5 April 2014.

2. A consequence of FfW is that GPs will no longer provide ‘fit notes’ after the Fit for Work service has produced their report, estimated to be issued around week six of absence. Employers need to plan how they will deal with employees who return to work to protect their income, even though they may not actually have recovered from their illness.

3. What stance will the employer take on funding return to work therapies?  Employers will need to consider their options carefully, as those that refuse to support recommended therapies leave themselves open to claims of failing to meet a duty of care.

This brings us back to cost, which is pretty much where we started. The Government wants to save money, and the employer may need to spend a bit more as a result.  As we have an aging working population it is worth taking some time to ensure that any extra expenditure is directed well.  Dealing with employees that are suffering from illness requires extra care and sensitivity; getting the balance right is important as this can send a positive message to other staff about the employer’s behaviours and values.  Also, helping an employee through a tough time can foster lasting loyalty and goodwill. In the longer term the employer’s business should also reap financial rewards.

To make sure money is spent well an employer should consider carefully the support programmes already in place.  Start with your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which is an essential for those employers wanting to meet their duty of care.  Seek advice regarding what additional solutions will help to support employees and the business when engaging with a return to work plan.  Proactive planning will mean that an employer has solutions available for immediate engagement, and this could even prevent some absences occurring.

Finally, consider some of the softer sides of employee wellbeing to promote a healthy lifestyle in and outside of work. Healthy lunches and gym membership discounts are all tools to help keep employees fit, healthy and motivated, and this can only be good for business.

You can contact Pauline on pauline.iles@quantumadvisory.co.uk