By Alan Price at Peninsula Business Services
A sickness absence policy is an essential tool for organisations of all sizes; no employer can avoid having to deal with employee absence through sickness and the effect of this type of absence is arguably felt more significantly in small businesses.
Sickness absence policies should clearly explain the process for managing extended periods of absence, for example, through maintaining regular contact with the employee. Many employers already incorporate an occupational health referral scheme into their contractual documentation. This means that many employees are already used to this step, although occupational health referrals are likely to occur much more frequently now that an occupational health referral service is available at no cost through Fit for Work. Advice on how to manage sickness absence can also be sought through the Fit for Work service.
Sickness absence policies that make reference to occupational health referrals
Contracts written to incorporate provision for an existing occupational health referral are not likely to require amendment so long as information about Fit For Work is available for employees to read.
Information about Fit for Work should include an outline of the aims of the service, information about the referral process and eligibility criteria, and the implications of the Return to Work Plan culminating from a referral. Importantly, the policy should mention that a Return to Work Plan can be used in the same way as a Fit Note from an employee’s GP. It is also important to make line managers and other members of staff responsible for implementing the absence policy aware of the Fit for Work process, perhaps by offering training.
Sickness absence policies with no reference to occupational health referrals
Where no mention is made of occupational health referrals in absence documentation, employees should be made formally aware of the inclusion of Fit for Work referrals in policies, and the date from which absent employees might expect to be referred to Fit for Work (after four weeks of sickness absence). As the Fit for Work service is voluntary and employee consent is required for referral, employees are under no obligation to use the service, and this should be made clear in the policy. The generic information about Fit for Work outlined above should also be provided.
There is not likely to be any resistance to the inclusion of Fit for Work in absence policies, and any resistance can usually be easily countered through an explanation of the duty of care that is placed on an employer. Employment tribunals are keener than ever to enforce the responsibility on employers in relation to employee wellbeing, and measures to get more detail on an employee’s health condition are integral to that. In any event, as employee consent is required for referral, employees are under no obligation to use the service.
To prepare for cases in which employees do not given consent to be referred to Fit for Work (and where no existing occupational health referrals are in place), it would be helpful to amend sickness absence policies to explain what would happen in these instances. It is likely that employers would be forced to make decisions on an employee’s ability to work based on the information available to them (i.e. with no occupational health opinion to back up their conclusions).
To find out more about how Fit for Work can help you manage sickness absence, visit the Fit for Work website or call the freephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Cymraeg).
Employers can refer employees who have been off work for four weeks or more for a free occupational health assessment by visiting fitforwork.org/employer and clicking on ‘refer an employee’.
GPs can refer sooner than four weeks by visiting fitforwork.org/general-practitioner and clicking on ‘refer a patient’ if they think the employee is likely to be off sick for four weeks or more. To find out more about referrals, see this post.
Those in Scotland can contact 0800 019 2211 or visit fitforworkscotland.scot.