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Fit for Work ‘failed to provide practical advice to help sick employees’

26 Jun 2018 By Hayley Kirton

Report also confirms concerns over scrapped scheme’s low participation rates

Much of the advice offered to employees using the abandoned Fit for Work scheme was not tailored enough for their employers to put into practice, a government report released late last week suggested.

Fit for Work, which was established in December 2014, was intended to help employees who had been off work for four weeks or more, or were at risk of being so, return to the workplace. Initially, only GPs could refer people to the programme, but it was extended in September 2015 so employers could refer their staff.

However, last November the government announced that it would be ending the scheme in England and Wales in March this year and in Scotland in May. Then work and pensions secretary David Gauke blamed the scrapping of the programme on “much lower than expected” referral levels

Last week’s report, which was carried out on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by the Institute for Employment Studies, revealed that just two in five (39 per cent) employees who received a Return to Work Plan (RtWP) after going through the Fit for Work process saw all of its recommendations enacted by their employer. A further fifth (22 per cent) reported that only some of the recommendations had been put in place.

“Employers suggested that there should be more communication between case managers and employers; for example, updating them about the progress of their employees’ cases, enabling them to have more input into the process, and enabling greater tailoring of the RtWP to their work environment and the employees’ roles,” the report noted. 

The report also found that a third (35 per cent) of people were still out of work eight to 10 months after using the ill-fated scheme. Of those who had successfully returned to work after two to three months, two in five (41 per cent) felt the service had made very little difference to helping them get back to work.

“Occupational health in any context, not just sickness absence, requires a thorough understanding of the workplace, role, environment and individual in combination to be effective,” Charlotte Cross, director at the Better Health at Work Alliance, told People Management. “The generalised approach of the service undermined its ability to succeed from the start.”

Mike Blake, director of health and wellbeing at Willis Towers Watson, added that a key issue with not receiving “bespoke” occupational health advice was that it could produce suggestions that “sound great in theory” but are impractical, especially for smaller employers. 

“I think this [Fit for Work’s RtWP scheme] is kind of a bit one-way,” he said. “So, it was ‘here’s your RtWP. Get on with it’ or there’s no other option. It didn’t seem to me that there was a lot of possibility of dialogue there.”

The DWP report also confirmed concerns that the scheme had seen low take-up. Just 8,486 employees in England and Wales and 1,017 in Scotland were referred and discharged from the service between October 2015 and December 2016. 

A survey run by GP magazine on behalf of People Management in August 2017 discovered that two-thirds (65 per cent) of more than 400 GPs questioned had never referred anybody under the scheme. 

Meanwhile, the CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Well-being at Work 2018 survey, which was published in May, found that while two-thirds (69 per cent) of employers had heard of Fit for Work, just 29 per cent had used it. 

However, Rachel Suff, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, said the scheme’s closure was still “disappointing”. 

“The principle behind it – providing occupational health advice and return-to-work support for all employers – remains a progressive step that we hope will be reflected in the government’s plans going forward,” she added.

A DWP spokesperson said: “The findings from the Fit for Work evaluation will now help inform future occupational health reform. We have set out our plans to transform employment prospects for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions over the next 10 years in our policy paper Improving Lives: the Future of Work, Health and Disability.” 

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