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In 2011,  a report was done looking into sickness absence in the UK along , entitled ‘Health at work – an independent review of sickness absence’. This review was necessary because in the UK in 2011, around 1 million people a year took sickness absence of four weeks or more – and of those, around 300,000 were falling out of work altogether. The purpose of our review was to try and find ways to reduce this extremely high number, and to improve the coherence, effectiveness and cost of the existing systems which were already in place for managing sickness absence.

We identified a lack of access to occupational health support and advice as one of the main obstacles preventing people returning to work. Because of this, one of our key recommendations in the review was that the government should fund an independent assessment and advice service – and thus, Fit for Work was born. The new service, which employers can now refer staff members to, is estimated to help cut sick pay costs to businesses by £80 million to £165 million a year.

Previously, people could only be referred to Fit for Work by their GPs, but now employers can refer their staff on long-term sickness absence too. Once an employee has given their explicit and informed consent to be referred to Fit for Work by their employer they will be contacted within two working days. They will receive an assessment by an occupational health professional; this will usually take place over the telephone and will seek to identify all potential obstacles preventing the employee from returning to work including health, work and personal factors.

Fit for Work marks the first time that there has been access to free occupational health advice and support for all employees across the country. The service will be of particular value to SMEs – the impact of long-term sickness absence on SMEs is far greater than on large companies and SMEs are also far less likely to have access to in-house occupational health support, unlike large companies, so for them Fit for Work offers an important line of support.

Having an employee on long-term sickness absence has implications which extend far beyond cost for businesses. A valued employee being unable to work for four weeks or more will cause problems like staff shortages and workload issues for other staff members, as well as denting business productivity and reducing the ability to serve customers or clients properly. The uncertainty of not knowing if or when a staff member is returning to work makes managing staff and assigning work far more difficult, and can even reduce staff morale.

It’s not just businesses who suffer – employees out of work are caused problems too. Research suggests that being out of work for long periods of time is damaging to employees’ health, social and financial well-being. The evidence clearly shows that the longer an employee is out of work the more difficult it becomes to reintegrate them back into the business. Early access to practical help will ensure that employees get back to work as soon as possible. Fit for Work helps employees on long-term sick get back to work faster and helps them stay at work once they have returned, which in turn will bring benefits to British businesses and the economy.

* David Frost CBE was Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce from 2003-2011. In this role he represented and promoted the interests of 100,000 businesses within the UK. In 2011 he co-chaired with Dame Carol Black, on behalf of the Government, an Independent Review of Sickness Absence within the UK.