By Georgina Read, Co-founder, citrusHR

If you have an employee who has been off for four weeks or more, you may be interested to hear more about Fit for Work; the government’s new initiative to help those absent for long periods get back into the workplace.

For smaller employers, this will be welcome news to help them get their most important resource back working for them. After all, what is a company without its people?

It’s not a common problem for small business, but when long term sickness does raise its head it can be a real issue.

How does it work?

So how will Fit for Work help your employees when it is implemented?

It takes on two elements that you will have to work through with your employee; as long as they’ve had four weeks of continuous leave, or are expected to have.

The first part of this is the assessment. Once they have matched the criteria, they will normally be referred by their GP so that they can be assessed properly by an occupational health professional. The ability for employers to also refer their staff to Occupational Health professional is still an option (bypassing the GP), provided that the employee gives consent at all stages of the process.

Following the assessment comes step two, when the employee will be given a ‘Return to Work’ plan. This plan is designed for both the staff member and the employer – containing recommendations to help the employee get back in the workplace more quickly, and where they can get the advice and help they need.

The Return to Work plan will be in effect until the employee either returns to work; or if this hasn’t been possible within the three month case assignment period, the Fit for Work service intervention will end. It’s a positive that a deadline has been given to manage ill health cases, but at the same time many cases of serious ill health won’t meet the three month management target for a successful return to work.

How will Fit for Work work for smaller employers?

Luckily for employers, there is financial support available for the service. It will operate with a tax exemption of up to £500 per year for medical treatments recommended by Fit for Work or an occupational health service arranged by the employer. However, for many small businesses the cost of additional medical advice and support will still be too much to bear.

If it is unaffordable for you to accommodate a Return to Work scheme like this, you’ll need to prove in some way you have good business justification to turn it down. Otherwise you could be risking a discrimination claim. In the event, your case manager assigned by the Fit for Work Scheme can help you look into alternatives.

Should you need to implement a capability procedure, it may well be advisable to wait for the Return to Work plan to be issued – so you can prove that it isn’t viable. If the employee has refused help or to provide medical consent you can immediately proceed down the formal capability route - making judgements based only on the limited information you have already e.g. meeting records, GP notes, historical absence records.

Although not affordable for some, one positive of the process is that it catches health issues at an earlier stage. Instead of your employees being off for an extended period with no support, the four week mark could work well to get them the help they need before the issue gets worse.

It may not be perfect, but it is one way to help smaller employers either get access to professional advice which could encourage an earlier return to work, which is usually the preferred outcome for both the company and employee...