Help for Employers – new free occupational health service

Author: Aggy Cybulska, Expansa Ltd


Every business employing staff will, sooner or later, be affected by sickness absence. Nothing wrong with that: we are human beings and we do get poorly sometimes. However, from the business point of view, problems start when a number of days off goes over what would be considered a ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ level of absence. According to Fit for Work website, each year around 865,000 employee absences in England and Wales are for a period exceeding four weeks. Four weeks would, in HR speak, be typically classified as ‘long term absence’, which should trigger certain actions from an employer, e.g. a request for a medical or occupational health report. Until recently such reports would have to be obtained by an employer at a considerable cost (c. £300 for an occupational health assessment and report). From September this year, slightly simplified versions of such reports can be obtained for free within a Fit to Work scheme.

The upside

In the effort of reducing workplace absences and increasing productivity (the U.K. is still lagging behind its European counterparts productivity-wise) the government has launched a Fit to Work scheme. The scheme is open to all employers and employees and it has been designed to help working people who face lengthy sickness absence return to work. It provides a free telephone based occupational health assessment and a Return to Work Plan for every employee who has been or is likely to be absent from work for a minimum of four weeks. Individuals can be referred for an assessment by either their employer or a GP.

The service comes particularly handy to small and medium size businesses (SMEs) who are unlikely to employ an occupational health specialist on site and would otherwise have to procure a report from private occupational health firms.

The downside

Although very useful, the new service would not apply in other circumstances where occupational health expertise is sought, for example a workstation assessment for a disabled staff member or health surveillance in accordance with Health and Safety regulations.

Quality and objectivity of Fit for Work assessments is yet to be determined. The Fit for Work website informs that an assessment would take place over a 45 minute telephone interview. Therefore, an occupational health advisor producing a Return to Work Plan would rely entirely on what an employee reports during those 45 minutes. My concern is that a Return to Work Plan may become very employee biased if views are not sought in equal measure from an employer or an independent medical source. The format may also be more suited for more generic health issues rather than industry specific or complex medical problems.

It is yet too early to make judgements about the effectiveness of the Fit to Work scheme, it undoubtedly has the potential to reduce absence cost to employers; only the time will tell if employers find the scheme fit for use.

If you are affected by staff absence and would like an empathetic but business focussed advice on the best way to proceed, please do not hesitate to get in touch with Aggy on 07789095897 or


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