The new Health and Work Service is a government-funded occupational health service. It is due to go live in April 2015 with a phased roll-out from late 2014. The service is part of the government’s long-term economic plan and is aimed at helping employees and employers manage sickness absence.
Occupational health: the need for change
According to government figures, each year, nearly a million employees reach the four-week sickness absence point. The state spends around £12 billion a year on health-related benefits and a further £2 billion a year on healthcare, sick pay, reimbursement and foregone taxes. Additionally, employers face an annual bill of around £9 billion for sick pay and associated costs, while individuals miss out on £4 billion a year through lost earnings, and around 300,000 people fall out of work and into the welfare system because of health-related issues (figures are taken from the government press release ‘Health and Work Service supplier announced’, published on 25 July 2014).
The government hopes that the new Health and Work Service will mean more people with jobs, reduced costs for businesses and a more financially secure future for Britain.
The Health and Work Service will provide an occupational health assessment, and general health and work advice to employees, employers and GPs, to help individuals with a health condition to stay in or return to work. The contract for this service has been awarded to Maximus, one of the largest occupational health providers in the UK.
Once the employee has reached – or is expected to reach – four weeks’ sickness absence, they will normally be referred by their GP for an assessment by an occupational health professional, who will look at all the issues preventing the employee from returning to work. The assessment will be done entirely by internet or telephone, following which a work plan will be prepared containing recommendations to help the employee return to work more quickly and to provide information on how to access appropriate interventions. Additionally, employers, employees and GPs will be able to access advice via a phoneline and website.
Will the Health and Work Service work?
It is likely that the new service will be useful for small employers; however, there is a concern that large employers are likely to have occupational health services in place already and therefore this service is unlikely to be relevant to them. There is also concern as to whether a generic occupational health provider would fully understand a unique employer’s business needs and whether generic advice can really help the employee return to work. It is, however, intended that the new service will complement existing occupational health provisions rather than replace them. Employees can also refuse to be assessed or follow any course of action or treatment intended and may, therefore, refuse a referral where the occupational health service provided by their employer is preferred.
Concerns have also been raised about how useful the reports will be as a result of assessments done entirely by internet or phone. The government has been urged to provide a clearer idea of how the new service will deliver assessments that are appropriately robust, when compared to something a GP might produce following a face-to-face consultations.
It is also unclear at this stage whether employers will be penalised by a tribunal if they fail to engage with the service prior to proceeding with a dismissal on grounds of ill-health. Presumably, provided the employer has sought medical advice and acted on the advice given, it will be irrelevant whether that medical advice was provided by an occupational health professional under this service. It is, however, too early to tell whether the new service will impact on the fairness of such dismissals.
For more information on any of the issues raised in this article, please contact Lyons Davidson’s employment law team.