Initially, FFW is providing advice through a website and telephone line but it will shortly be extended to provide free referrals for an occupational health assessment for employees. FFW is not mandatory for employers, but guidance published by the Department for Work and Pensions encourages employers to update their sickness absence policies to reflect the availability of FFW.
Employees will normally be referred by their GP, but employers can also make a free referral after four weeks of absence.
To be eligible for referral by the employer, the employee must:
- have four weeks absence from work
- have a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work
- not have been referred for a FFW assessment within the last 12 months
- give explicit consent which is informed and freely given.
The assessment with an occupational health professional will usually take place over the telephone. It is anticipated that employees will usually be contacted within two working days after they are referred to FFW. Where a face-to-face assessment is required, this is expected to take place within five working days of this judgment being made. Employees may claim reasonable travel expenses from the FFW service provider for attending an assessment.
The assessment will involve producing a Return to Work Plan (the Return Plan) with the employee, which will include advice and recommendations to help the employee return to work more quickly. The Return Plan will be shared with both the employer and the employee's GP, with the employee's consent. The Return Plan acts as evidence of sickness absence so the employer will not need to request a fit note during the period covered by FFW.
Employers do not have to follow the recommendations in the Return Plan, but failure to do so could cause legal issues in some cases, particularly if the employee is disabled or if the employee is dismissed or unable to return to work.
An employee will be discharged from FFW when they have returned to work (including a phased return) or if a return to work has not been possible after 3 months.
What should employers do?
Employers who do not have an occupational health service in place should consider making use of FFW to help manage sickness absence. Those who already have occupational health are likely to find that their existing service is more comprehensive than FFW.
Employers should be aware that an employee may be referred to FFW by their GP without the employer's knowledge. FFW may get in touch with an employer before producing a Return Plan but does not have to do so. The first the employer knows about the referral may be receiving a Return Plan
Employers should ensure that relevant individuals have the appropriate training or knowledge to deal with any Return Plans that are received.
Employers should consider a system to deal with the administration of Return Plans to ensure that they are acted on or that the reasons for not acting on them are recorded.
Employers should also note that from 1 January 2015, the Government has introduced a tax exemption of £500 per year, per employee where the employer funds the costs of medical treatments recommended to help their employees return to work.
I am not sure how effective this idea will be especially as telephone consultations will be of variable quality however it will be a potential benefit in that it may save the costs of an expert occupational health assessment. It will never be as good as you own private occupational health consultant.