It is estimated that long term sickness absence costs the UK economy almost £9 billion each year due to 140 million days lost as sickness absence. With an already failing economy, it is no wonder then that alongside a number of employment law reforms aimed at tackling the economic crisis, this is another area under scrutiny.
Traditionally, employers have expected an employee’s doctor to assess their capability to work. However, an independent review into sickness absence published this month has suggested that a family doctor taking work decisions may not be the best way to manage long term sickness absence and that bespoke advice would be more appropriate.
The review has suggested the creation of an Independent Assessment Service (IAS), which would provide an in-depth assessment of a person’s physical and/or mental function when they have been signed off work for four weeks or more. The IAS would also then provide advice on how best to manage that absence including advice on supportive measures to enable that person to return to work. Other recommendations include;
- Revisions to the Fit note guidance – so that any judgments about fitness to return to work would be general and not limited to the individual’s role.
- Tax relief for return to work or keeping in work adjustments – including medical treatment or vocational rehabilitation
- Abolition of the Percentage Threshold Scheme – this currently compensates employers with very high rates of sickness absence
- Abolition of Statutory sick pay record keeping obligations to reduce administrative burdens on employer
- Update the Employer’s Charter to address misconceptions and legal uncertainty around sickness absence management
The review, very optimistically states that these measures could save up to £400 million a year for employers, £300 million for the state and increase productivity and output by up to £4.1 billion. There are no details on the costs of the service or who or how many will undertake the work.
Employers will no doubt welcome these proposals, which seem a logical extension of the existing “fit note” system which, whilst better than the previous sick note, still requires doctors to make job related decisions without necessarily having the time or expertise to assess individuals properly. An IAS assessor would need to give practical advice on any condition and its effect on the employee’s job and will require the employee to engage fully in the process.
Other measures to tackle long term sickness absence suggested in the review include a job brokering service where specialists would assist in placing long term absentees back into work and also tax breaks for employers that offer support for sick staff through occupational health and support programmes.
It will be interesting to see whether this initiative is introduced and whether it will result in a reduction in sickness absence and what added complications an external agency will bring with it. Will employers be required to provide information to the GP and/or IAS in respect of the employee’s absence, role, appraisal notes etc and will this require additional legal advice for the employer to ensure it is legally compliant. Also, what if there are challenges to the IAS report, will there be an appeal system?
The government will now consider this review and hopefully produce a report in the New Year.