The objective of the new service is to get employees back to work quicker, thus reducing associated costs for employers (and the Government). Implementation will start in some areas in October 2014 with a full national roll-out completed by April 2015.
Following the Government's review of the sickness absence system in Great Britain in January 2013, it is good to see that the gravity of the sickness issues currently facing employers has been recognised. Employers currently pay a £9 billion bill for sick pay and associated costs each year.
Subsequently, a publicly-funded service will be established. The new service will provide occupational health assessments and a general health & work advice service to employers.
The likely benefits of the service are:
- It will be relatively cheap in comparison to the alternative of commissioning an independent consultant report, and
- The overall aims of the service are welcomed; getting sick employees back to full health quicker and more cost effectively can only be a good thing for all concerned.
Our concerns regarding the service based on the information currently available are:
- The employer's ability to request a report from the service only begins if the employee's own GP has not done so and the employee has been off for 4 weeks.
- If the employee withholds consent, the service is stopped dead in its tracks.
- The assessment is likely to be carried out over the telephone.
- There is no opportunity for the employer to ask the medic any specific, focused questions, such as asking directly for information to enable the employer to decide whether the employee is disabled, how long the condition is likely to last and how the condition affects the employee's ability to perform everyday tasks.
- We understand that the employee will see the report before it is sent to the employer and have the right to refuse access the employer's access to the report.
- The medic may not engage with the employer regarding any follow up after the report is produced.
- It is not yet clear how existing employer's policies and private occupational services will interact and work alongside the new service. It is also unknown as to whether an employer may be deemed to have acted unreasonably if they ignore the new service in favour of pre-existing arrangements.
Employers will need to think through their sickness absence management policies very carefully in light of this change.