The Government began its phased nationwide roll-out of the new Fit for Work (FFW) service on 9 March 2015.
There are two elements to the FFW service:
- Advice service: Free work-related health advice via the Government’s website (http://fitforwork.org/) and telephone line. This advice is described as being “expert” and “impartial”.
- Referral service: Referral to an occupational health professional for employees who have been off sick, or who are likely to be off sick, for four weeks or more. The occupational health professional should identify obstacles preventing the employee from returning to work and produce a Return to Work Plan tailored to the employee’s needs. In reality, the service offered is fairly limited and will usually consist of a telephone conversation with the employee and an occupational health adviser.
The advice service is now live. It can be used online through the website, or by telephone, as many times as required to give employees, employers and GPs advice about work-related health matters. The advice is intended to help identify adjustments that could help an employee remain in, or return to, work.
The referral service commenced on 9 March 2015 in the Sheffield and Betsi Cadwaladr areas, with a phased roll out taking place elsewhere over the next few months. To see where the service is live or rolling-out soon, see http://fitforwork.org/rollout-map/
Initially, only GPs will be able to make referrals. However, once the GP referral service roll-out is completed (expected to be by Autumn 2015), employers will also be able to refer employees if, after four weeks of absence, they have not been referred by their GP. Referrals may only be made if there is a reasonable prospect that the employee will be able to return to work.
The referral will only go ahead if the employee consents to it and employee consent is also required before the Return to Work Plan may be shared with their GP and employer.
It remains to be seen how useful this service will be where employees genuinely have a long term condition. One of the concerns is that patients will automatically be discharged from Fit for Work either two weeks after they have returned to work or on the date Fit for Work decides that there is no further support they can offer the patient. This will be either when the patient has been with the service for three months or at the point Fit for Work decides the patient will be unable to return to work for three months or more (if earlier). Employees may only be referred to Fit for Work once in any 12 month period.
Impact on fit notes
Employers may accept a Return to Work Plan as sufficient medical information for the purposes of determining entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay. Return to Work Plans may therefore be accepted in place of a fit note.
If however the employee chooses not to share their Return to Work Plan, or if the employer chooses not to accept it, the employee’s GP can consider if a fit note is required.
Government guidance on the scheme can be found here