Will a new scheme to get more sick staff back to work quicker really be useful? Andrew Moore analyses the issue.
With it being estimated that 960,000 employees in the UK are on long-term sickness absences, leading to 130m working days being lost with a cost of £9bn to businesses, the government is implementing a new scheme aimed at assisting sick employees back into work and helping employers deal with absent staff. On the face of it, the scheme should be welcomed by employers, but will it really make a positive difference or will it put more obstacles in the way of employers managing their business?
From the end of 2014, the government will start to roll out a new approach to sickness absence. The Health and Work Service will provide occupational health (OH) advice and support for employees, employers and GPs. Its objective will be to help people with a health condition to stay in or return to work.
An aid for businesses
The rationale behind the new scheme is to motivate both employers and employees to review their circumstances once a health issue arises.
Once the service is up and running, you will be able to contact a helpline support by phone or email and seek advice regarding employee sickness and absence. Although open to all employers, the helpline service is expected to be of greatest benefit to small or medium-sized businesses.
Businesses will be able to refer an absent employee for a health assessment after just four weeks (even less in some cases). This should encourage an employee to focus upon returning to work.
The service will be delivered by OH professionals who, as independent third parties, will be expected to look beyond the employee’s primary health condition and explore and understand all the reasons that the employee considers is making them unable to return to work.
This will allow you to explore alternatives or make a more informed assessment of your business needs. For example, if the OH assessment identifies the cause of an employee’s absence to be stress resulting from caring for an ill mother at home – the service might steer them towards organisations which could help them. In turn, as the employer, you might consider whether shorter hours for a few weeks would be feasible for the business (and less costly than hiring a temp) and might enable the employee to commence a gradual return.
If, on the other hand, the assessment reveals the absence to be more complicated and likely to be prolonged, you might need to look at other options both as regards the employee and business planning. However, whether, in fact, the new regime will help your business with finding solutions to the problems caused by absent sick employees will rest heavily upon the quality of service provided by the OH professional assigned to deal with your absent employee.
No compulsion, but…
Participation in the scheme is not compulsory either for you or your staff. However, employees who refuse to engage with the new system risk not being provided with further fit notes from their GPs signing them off work, may jeopardise their right to sick pay and other entitlements and may place themselves at risk of disciplinary action.
Dismissal: The changes
The process of an employee undergoing the service’s health assessment itself is expected to be quick and efficient. The intention is that an initial assessment will take place by telephone within two days of the employee’s referral to the service, with a follow-up and an indication of a return-to-work date provided within that same week. The service will produce a Return-to-Work Plan (normally presented as a timetable), containing specific advice to help the employee’s return to work.
You should be wary of relying solely upon the Return-to-Work Plan to justify dismissing an employee. Given that any health assessment is expected to be brief, the Return-to-Work Plan is likely to be viewed by an Employment Tribunal as a guide only, not definitive. Rejecting the recommendations of the service without proper consideration (and being able to demonstrate such a thought-process) could lead to a successful claim of unfair dismissal or disability discrimination in the case of a long-term illness.
Remember, dismissing an employee must be a reasonable sanction in the circumstances, based on what a “reasonable employer” might do. The service will not offer a comprehensive medical review upon which employers can necessarily rely in reaching such decisions. To effect a fair dismissal, employers are likely to require supplemental medical evidence.
A positive aspect of the new regime is that you are likely to be better informed as to your employee’s health and ability to work, which will allow for greater consideration of your business’s options such whether you can make some changes that will get the employee back to work quicker or whether it would be prudent to employ a temp in the interim.