Back in February 2011, the Government appointed Dame Carol Black, the National Director for Health & Work and David Frost CBE, the Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce, to carry out a review of sickness absence. Together in November 2011, they published a report Health at Work – An Independent Review of Sickness Absence which made a number of recommendations aimed at reducing the level of sickness absence in the UK. Currently, around 300,000 people a year make claims for long term sickness benefit and it is estimated that employees’ absence amounts to approximately £15billion in lost economic output.
One of the recommendations within the report was to establish a new independent assessment service (IAS) to assess the ill health of employees. At the beginning of this year, the Government published its response to the proposals within the report and in doing so confirmed its intention to proceed with the report’s main recommendation to introduce a health and work assessment and advisory service with effect from 2014. The purpose of the service will be to provide a state funded assessment of employees who are off sick for 4 weeks or more by occupational health professionals.
In the 2013 Budget it was also announced that there will be a new tax exemption introduced for health related benefits paid for by employers aimed at assisting a person’s return to work. This is intended to cover the cost of medical treatment recommended by occupational health professionals as a result of the state funded assessment. It is planned that the exemption will be capped at £500.00 and we believe the legislation will come into force in 2014.
The question is whether the new IAS service is likely to be a success. Inevitably, there are already noises coming from Unions expressing concern about the new service, one of these being the suggestion that eventually it could be put out to tender which would result in it becoming target driven, forcing some patients back to work too early.
The point from an employer’s perspective is that any scheme with the intention of compelling employees to undergo a medical assessment after a period of 4 weeks’ absence cannot be a bad thing. Added to this, the cost of obtaining the assessment will be met by the Government. The Employment Team at Glaisyers regularly instructs occupational health practitioners on behalf of clients who are trying to get an employee back to work. The IAS scheme on the face of it takes this process out of the hands of the employer and injects a degree of certainty, given that it will avoid the usual problems which arise when certain individuals (usually those who have nothing wrong with them) try to avoid co-operating with the employer.
On the BBC News Business website this week, there was an example of an employee located in the Leicestershire area. This is one of a number of areas in which the Government is operating the IAS pilot scheme. The individual had only been working for his employer for a few months when he developed a problem with his shoulder very common amongst manual workers in his position working in warehouse related roles. He had been advised by his GP that he could be off for up to several months but under the pilot scheme, his GP referred him to a free occupational health service who referred him on for physiotherapy sessions immediately (rather than waiting several weeks for an NHS appointment). He was also given help to arrange a phased return to work and in under 4 weeks, he was back at work. His employer quite candidly made the point that if the employee had only had the support of the NHS, she was not sure whether this person would have kept their job. This in itself suggests that the scheme could be a success.
There are inevitably likely to be teething problems and nothing in the world of HR relations ever runs smoothly. The Government’s proposed IAS scheme however does, on the face of it, appear to help employers tackle the problems associated with long term sickness and at the same time just may help to reduce the financial burden associated with individuals claiming incapacity benefits unnecessarily.