Following trials in Sheffield and Wales, the Fit to Work scheme is rolling out across the rest of the country from this week.
The scheme was introduced by the government with a view to keeping more people in work and managing their sickness, rather than staying at home on long term absence. According to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, by investing in employees and taking a 'greater responsibility' when they are sick, employers will see more 'productive and committed workers'.
The Fit to Work scheme makes provision for GPs, with consent, to refer patients to a free assessment by an occupational health specialist with a view to getting them back into work sooner than if they waited. The assessment can make recommendations to employers, such as a change in working patterns or duties. Phased returns are also likely to be common. From the Autumn, employers will also be able to seek a referral to the service.
Sickness absence has been a problem for small employers who rely on all of their employees to maintain productivity and profitability. By taking steps to keep employees in work or in touch with work, wherever possible, through illnesses will help to keep them engaged. Statistics show that the longer an employee is absent from the workplace, the less likely they are to return.
Mr Duncan Smith believes some companies are too willing to let workers drift out of the workforce and on to long-term benefits and is to offer free occupational health advice to address the problem. The minister is concerned about the way in which conditions such as a bad back or anxiety have exploded in recent years, leaving potentially productive workers sitting at home on welfare.