Radio 4 report: sickness absence and return to work

Photo by A Bear Named Brian via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by A Bear Named Brian via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Radio 4’s ‘In Business’ programme (Thursday 11 April, 2013) ran a feature on long-term sickness absence. Contributors to the programme included Dame Carol Black (advisor on work and health at the Department of Health) and David Frost (the former Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce).

Dame Black offers an interesting explanation of the problematic nature of long-term sickness absence. According to Dame Black, approximately 11 million people obtain a medical certificate from their GP each year. Of these, some 300,000 on long-term sickness absence eventually end up on benefits and struggle to get back into the world of work. Statistically, those who are off work for more than 20 weeks have a very low chance of returning to work at all.

There are a number of reasons why a person might struggle to get back to work once they are on benefits, some of which aren’t necessarily related to their health condition, e.g.:

  • problems at work or strained relations with colleagues, which can be demotivating and make it difficult to return;
  • personal problems (e.g. relationship breakdown, debt problems or childcare  issues), which may make people feel it would be easier not to work at all.

The programme focused in some length on Leicestershire Fit for Work Service, which is one of seven pilot not-for-profit social enterprise projects currently running across the UK. The Fit for Work Service (FFWS) was developed on the back of the Dame Black and David Frost’s 2008 review of the health of Britain’s working age population (‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’). The FFWS aims to:

  • help those who are at risk of going off on long-term sickness absence stay in employment, and;
  • get people back to work in some capacity much sooner than they would otherwise.

The FFWS acts as an impartial third party to liaise between the various interested parties (GPs, employers, employees and, in some cases, occupational health practitioners) so that informed decisions can be made about a person’s ability to return to work. Some examples of the support potentially offered by the FFWS include:

  • Employees: Supporting employees who have been signed off work due to illness and encouraging them to return to work as soon as possible may help diminish the risk of long-term sickness absence and, potentially, the move onto benefits.
  • GPs: Since the introduction of the fit note it’s no longer simply a question of signing a person off work due to illness. Increasingly, GPs require some understanding of a person’s working environment in order to suggest other activities they might manage.
  • Employers: It is very important, especially in small organisations, for employers to know how long a person might be off work in order to plan contingencies. Or employers might find it difficult to support staff who are suffering from health conditions, particularly when these are of a serious nature. The FFWS can offer guidance on these issues.

The FFWS is generally one that employees go to in the first instance having been referred by their GPs. However, free professional help is also available to employers from the Health for Work Adviceline on supporting employees with health issues and helping them to continue working productively: 0800 0 77 88 44.

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