The Fit for Work (FFW) Service has now been rolled out in England, Scotland and Wales. From autumn 2015, employers will be able to make referrals to the FFW Service directly.
The FFW Service is expected to provide a state-funded assessment by occupational health professionals for employees who are off sick for four weeks or more. It will also provide case management for employees with complex needs to facilitate their return to work.
The FFW Service is designed to be accessed by GPs, employers or employees. The service can be accessed through live chats with specialists, emails, calls or by the traditional referral mechanism.
The effectiveness of the scheme may however be hindered by lack of awareness of its existence amongst employers. A recent survey has highlighted that more than 50% of employers are still not aware of the FFW Service and how it operates.
Employers can make a referral to the FFW Service where:
• the employee is still employed;
• the absence due to illness exceeds four weeks or more; and
• the employer believes that there is a reasonable likelihood that the employee will return to work within three months, even if this is on a phased basis only.
However, employees will not be eligible for referral if:
• they are not absent from work;
• they have previously been referred to the service within a 12 month period and have received a return to work plan as a result;
• their GP has already referred them to the FFW Service; or
• they do not consent to the referral.
In terms of the effectiveness of the scheme in returning employees to the workplace, much depends on the extent and quality of engagement between employers and the service. Of critical importance is FFW medical professionals having a good understanding of the workplace context to any absence. It is difficult to predict the extent to which FFW Service professionals will engage with employers to understand the environment employees work in before giving advice. Information on the workplace context can be shared more effectively where the employer makes a referral directly. It is expected that there will be some engagement between the service professionals and employers, particularly where a recommendation in a ‘return to work plan’ has not been actioned.
Employers should note that whilst the FFW Service will deliver some aspects of an occupational health service, it will not manage the employees’ sickness absence which is still the responsibility of managers and employers. Also, where the sickness absence is short and intermittent, the FFW Service is unlikely to accept such a referral.
Going forward, the FFW Service is likely to play an important role for employers, particularly for the smaller employer and in relation to long term sickness absence.