The Fit for Work scheme that aimed to revolutionise occupational health in the UK has been slammed as a ‘wasted investment’ after two sets of figures suggested it was being woefully underused by both companies and doctors.
A new survey run on behalf of People Management by GP magazine has found that around two-thirds (65 per cent) of more than 400 GPs questioned had not referred a single person under the Fit for Work scheme in the last year.
And of those who had used the scheme at some point, 40 per cent said no one they had referred had successfully returned to work.
Meanwhile, three out of five (61 per cent) of those questioned said they were not sure how effective the programme was at reducing long-term sickness absence and 15 per cent described it as very ineffective.
Fit for Work was initially established as a GP-led service but was extended to allow businesses to refer employees in September 2015. It aims to provide free, impartial advice to employers along with an occupational health assessment for staff off sick for four or more weeks, in a bid to reduce the NHS bill for long-term sickness by getting individuals back to work earlier.
However, there have been concerns from an early stage about how well publicised and understood the scheme is, as well as the potential for overlap with employers’ existing occupational health programmes.
A survey carried out by Jelf Employee Benefits in December 2015 found that just 17 per cent of 281 employers questioned had received any sort of formal notification about the extension of the scheme.
Charlotte Cross, director of the Better Health at Work Alliance, told People Management the latest findings suggested that the Fit for Work service had been a “wasted investment”. She said the “united focus from all stakeholders should now be to ensure that employers are aware of the plethora of experts and other specialist resources already available to them and are financially able to use them, removing employer over-reliance upon the NHS and improving work and health outcomes across the board”.
Meanwhile, Dr Nigel Watson, a GP and chief executive of Wessex Local Medical Committees – a representative body for GPs – said the numbers reflected the lack of publicity the scheme had enjoyed. “If you see there’s a benefit to you and your patient, you’re more likely to use it,” he said.
A separate survey, published today by manufacturers’ organisation EEF, revealed that, although three-quarters (77 per cent) of the 264 companies it surveyed had heard of the Fit for Work scheme, just a quarter of those that were aware of it would use it.
Of the 14 respondents that had used the scheme, only three agreed it had helped their staff return to work earlier.
“While the Fit for Work service has a key role to play, companies are clearly not persuaded of the benefits of using it, either because they already have some form of occupational health provision or they are content to rely on the NHS,” said Terry Woolmer, head of health and safety policy at EEF. “As such, the government needs to review its work and health priorities as part of the development of the wider industrial strategy. This would help improve the productive potential of the economy and reduce the burden on an overstretched NHS.”
An earlier study by Willis Towers Watson’s PMI Health Group found that just a fifth (21 per cent) of HR professionals had used the Fit for Work scheme, despite 82 per cent being aware of it.
The Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions launched a joint green paper and consultation into work, health and disability in November last year that covered Fit for Work, among other areas. The consultation closed for feedback on 17 February and the government website currently notes that the departments are analysing the feedback received.
The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.