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Employers are reminded that, as of 22 July 2015, GPs across England and Wales can make referrals to the Fit for Work service, so you may be contacted by the service regarding a member of staff who is absent on sick leave. The intention is that employers will be able to make referrals to the service later in the year, once the GP referral system is well established.
The aim of the Fit for Work service is to improve the management of sickness absence by helping employees return to work after a period of sick leave, thereby improving business productivity and reducing the cost to the taxpayer in state benefits.
Under the free scheme, employees on sick leave who are reasonably likely to be able to return to work within three months and who have given their consent will be provided with an occupational health assessment when they reach, or are expected to reach, more than four weeks' absence. After an employee has been referred to the service by their GP, a case manager will support them through the assessment process and, with their permission, liaise with their employer to ensure that their level of need and the appropriate steps necessary to enable them to return to work are correctly identified. Based on this information, a personalised 'Return to Work Plan' will be produced. A Return to Work Plan will remove the need for an employee to obtain a fit note from their GP, unless they remain off work after they have been discharged from Fit for Work.
Employees are not obliged to cooperate with the service, which could frustrate its aims and lessen its effectiveness. Its success will also depend on the case manager having a clear understanding of the employee's work and making recommendations for a return to work that are realistic in the circumstances. Whilst employers are not legally obliged to comply with the recommendations in the Return to Work Plan, a failure to do so in the case of a disabled employee could be regarded as a failure to comply with the duty to make reasonable adjustments that would enable the employee to carry out their duties without being at a disadvantage compared with other employees, and thereby result in a claim of disability discrimination.
On 1 January 2015, the Government introduced an exemption from Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions of up to £500 per year per employee on medical treatments recommended in order to help an employee return to work. This applies to treatments recommended by health professionals within Fit for Work and by health professionals within employer-arranged occupational health services.
Separate guidance on the new system for employers, employees and GPs can be found on the Fit for Work website. In addition, more general advice is available to anyone requiring work-related health advice on the website or via a telephone advice line – 0800 032 6235.