• Lee Calver
  • 10 February 2014

New Health and Work Service set to save employers £70m a year

Under a new scheme to be launched by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), workers will be referred for health assessments if they are off sick for more than four weeks.

The Health and Work Service, which will cover England, Wales and Scotland is being introduced to try and help get sick workers back in the workplace and will offer non-compulsory medical assessments and treatment plans.

Figures released by the DWP show that up to 960,000 workers in Britain were on sick leave for more than a month each year between October 2010 and September 2013, with employers facing a yearly bill of approximately £9bn for sick pay and associated costs.

Ministers have stated that employers will save money overall by having fewer staff off sick and suggested that businesses could save up to £70m a year in reduced sickness pay and related costs. Furthermore, it could also cut the time people spend off work by 20% to 40%.

Commenting, the Work and Pensions Minister, Mike Penning, said:

"More than 130 million days a year are lost to sickness absence in Great Britain, which has a substantial impact on workers, employers and taxpayers.

"As part of the Government's long-term economic plan, we are taking action to getting people back into work.”

He added:

"This is a triple-win. It will mean more people with a job, reduced cost for business, and a more financially secure future for Britain."

The new service will be run by the private sector and funded by the money that will be saved after scrapping a compensation scheme for companies paying long-term sick pay to their employees.

It is important to note that the new scheme will not entail any change to existing laws. Currently, employees who are off work for more than four weeks are considered to be long-term sick and therefore entitled to Statutory Sick Pay of £86.70 per week from their employers.

Although this will not change with the introduction of the new scheme, the Government is determined to ensure that the Health and Work Service reduces the number of people on long-term sick leave.

Employees will be referred by a GP or their employer for a work-focused occupational health assessment, however the assessments will not be compulsory and workers will be allowed to refuse to be assessed.

For employees that do agree to the assessment, it has been revealed that they will be given a plan including a timetable for returning to work, fitness for work advice and signposted to appropriate help.

In addition, Ministers state that an advice service on the internet and phone will also be available under the scheme.

According to the DWP, the Health and Work Service will start operating later this year.

In response to the news, the Trades Union Congress said that it supported anything that could potentially help workers get back to work when they are ill, but warned that care needs to be taken over how the new scheme is implemented.

The TUC's Head of Health and Safety, Hugh Robertson, said:

"The focus of this service should be about getting workers better as opposed to just back to work, and the two are not necessarily the same."

Mr Robertson added:

"Also there is nothing which can force employers to do anything with the advice they are given by occupational health experts."

There is no suggestion however that people would be forced back to work prematurely under the new scheme and Pensions Minster, Steve Webb, has since insisted that it will be about “sitting down and supporting people” and “making sure that sickness absence is not any longer than it needs to be”.

Head of HR at Workplace Law, Suzanne McMinn, recently discussed absence management and what employers should be aware of when dealing with employees on long-term sick leave. Watch this short video to hear Suzanne talking about managing sickness absence.