A new support service, designed to help working people who face long-term sickness absence return to work more quickly, is now available across the whole of England.
The free and confidential service, known as Fit for Work, will provide the services of occupational health professionals to employed people if they have been, or are likely to be, off work for four weeks or more.
According to government statistics, around 815,000 working people in England each year have sickness absence of four weeks or more. Research indicates that, without support, a significant proportion will struggle to return to their jobs.
From today, all GPs in England will be able to offer their working patients a referral to the new service, which includes an in-depth assessment, followed by a personalised Return to Work Plan and managed support to get back to their jobs. Employers will also be able to refer their employeesto the service from the autumn.
The service, which is entirely voluntary, is intended to help the hundreds of thousands of people in England each year who are, or are likely to be, absent from work for more than four weeks due to illness or related issues. It will also help employers reduce the impact of long-term sickness absence on their businesses.
The service is expected to be of particular value in small and medium-sized firms where there is no, or limited, employer occupational health support available. It is estimated that only 31% of employees currently have access to occupational health services through their place of work.
During a series of events over recent months, GPs and practice managers in England and Wales have been briefed about the new service to which they can refer eligible patients, provided the individuals concerned give their consent.
HOW IT WORKS
Within two working days of a referral, the employee concerned will receive an in-depth consultation with an occupational health professional who will explore all of the issues that might be preventing that person returning to work. This will include work-related and wider personal issues as well as health matters.
The Return to Work Plan will direct employees towards services that will help them overcome any obstacles keeping them away from work. If the employee gives consent, Fit for Work professionals can also work directly with employers to help the patient achieve a return to work. The Return to Work Plan can replace the need for doctors to issue fit notes, thereby relieving pressure on GPs’ time. Support from the new service lasts for up to three months.
With individuals collectively estimated to miss out on £4billion a year in lost earnings, the service is intended to offer a pragmatic approach for those struggling to return to work. Fit for Work takes a holistic or ‘biopsychosocial’ approach, which takes into account the full range of work, health, and non-health/non-work issues that are preventing a return to work.
Several academic studies over recent years have shown that prolonged absence from work damages people’s social and financial well-being, as well as their health. The research also shows that the longer someone is off sick, the harder it is for them to get back to work.
Rosamond Roughton, Director of NHS Commissioning, said:
“NHS England welcomes ‘Fit for Work’, as an opportunity to support people working in England and Wales who currently have no access to expert occupational health advice. This service will help GPs provide holistic care to their patients, while reducing the pressure of ill health associated with managing people who become long term unemployed.”
Commenting on the Fit for Work roll-out, Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud said:
“Backing working people is central to the continued success of this country. The longer someone remains out of work due to sickness, the greater the cost to their career, income and future earnings. Fit for Work will ensure that people get the right help when they need it to get back to work so they can continue to support themselves and their families.”
Dr Lucy Goundry, Clinical Lead for the Fit for Work programme at Health Management Limited, which will deliver the new service, said: “GPs have long called for such a service and we are delighted to be able to provide an independent referral service that will make occupational health support accessible to the wider working population as well as provide a vital line of support for GPs in England.”
The service will become available to employers in the autumn and is already being supported by business organations across the country. Commenting about the service Richard Jones, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) said:“Health at work improves lives and supports business success. IOSH and our members work with employers across all sectors to prevent work-related illness, assist those with health conditions and support return-to-work after absence.
“It’s about getting the right advice at the right time – so IOSH welcomes the introduction of Fit for Work’s free occupational health advice and holistic approach to assessment, which also looks at non-health and non-work issues, as useful contributions. We also welcome the tax relief available for employer-funded support.
“Overall the UK needs to manage health more effectively and employers, employees and GPs need better access to advice and services.”
The Fit for Work referral service is complemented by a telephone advice line and website, both of which can be used now by anyone requiring work-related health advice, includingemployees, employers and GPs: 0800 032 6235 www.fitforwork.org.
For media enquiries please contact the Fit for Work PR team: Thomas Skinner or Hannah Tella on 0207 089 6121
 Source: A YouGov poll for the consultancy Croner of workers surveyed said their employer did not provide OH services, such as health information, counselling, wellbeing programmes or health checks.
 Source: Fitness for work: the Government response to ‘Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence’ Jan 2013 – page 11