One in two of those on sickness benefit due to mental health whilst government's Fit For Work service fails to gain interest

The government-funded Fit For Work sickness absence service continues to suffer from low-take up among employers, a new study has found.

The Fit For Work service, which provides free, expert advice in addition to referrals to occupational health practitioners, was launched in 2015, and was designed to support employees with health conditions as well as tackling sickness absence, aimed at those who have been absent for over four weeks.

But despite many HR professionals being aware of the service, very few employers are actually using it.

PMI Health Group part of Willis Towers Watson’s health and benefits team found that 82 per cent of HR respondents said they knew about the government initiative but just 21 per cent said they actually used the service.

Some respondents expressed concern about the service itself, with 60 per cent saying there was too much focus on fitness rather than early intervention and phased return-to-work plans.

Louise Flowers, Director of Customer Delivery at Healthcare RM said: “Many organisations just don’t know enough about the Fit For Work service, despite efforts to increase awareness. Furthermore, after four weeks of absence, the situation with the employee may have moved on and businesses would be dealing with it anyway.”

She added: “The impact of long term absence can be immediate to a small organisation, but engaging with a proactive health management service, often from day one of absence, can help reduce the length of time many people are absent from work. It can also tackle the myriad of psycho-social issues that can impede health and wellbeing.”

Flowers warned that employer nervousness around tackling mental-health related absence often resulted in stigmatisation and underreporting, particularly among smaller organisations who do not have the budget to invest in appropriate support programmes.

“The issue of mental health continues to be a growing concern and every organisation, regardless of size should ensure they have appropriate policies and procedures in place to assess and deal with the psychological hazards involved in a particular role or business,” she said.

In February, the Institute for Policy Research (IPPR) published a series of recommendations to tackle long-term sickness absence and warned that not enough was being done to prevent people leaving work due to ill health.

According to the IPPR’s own figures, an estimated 460,000 people each year transition from work to sickness and disability benefits, creating a huge cost to employers of £9 billion a year for sick pay and associated costs. One in two people on sickness benefits are so because of a mental health condition whilst UK government spending on sickness benefits is expected to rise by £2.4billion by 2020.

Among the report’s criticisms, the IPPR described the government’s Fit For Work service as ‘limited in scope’ and said it struggled to engage with SMEs whilst failing to provide an entire end-to-end service to support people back to work.

The IPPR have called for a new flexible ‘Fit Pay’ payment for those on sick leave which would reduce working hours on a temporary basis which would also support those wishing to return to work whilst employers have been urged to draw up ‘back to work plans’ once staff have been off for four weeks or more. The think tank also put forward proposals to implement an expanded Fit For Work occupational health service which would offer improved support to SMEs and their staff.

Flowers welcomed the proposals to provide SMEs with greater support but warned that many traditional occupational health organisations were limited in qualified personnel and in their ability to provide a holistic approach to employees.

“Incorporating a truly holistic approach to include the physical, psychological and general wellbeing of an individual is the only way to tackle long-term absence including life-threatening and severely debilitating illnesses caused by poor lifestyle choices,” she said.

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