The government's work and wellbeing agenda is ‘under major threat' as the ‘Fit Note' is failing to deliver on getting people back to work while long-term absence rates have increased; a study has warned.
The 2014 Sickness Absence survey, published by manufacturers' organisation EEF and Jelf Employee Benefits polled 335 companies.
Overall levels of absence have reached a record low of 2.1%, equivalent to 4.9 days per employee per year.
The research said this remains around the levels seen over the last few years and suggests, that the situation has "plateaued with big inroads into short-term absence already made."
However, the survey reveals that long-term absence has increased, with almost two fifths of companies saying long-term absence has increased in the last two years.
Stress and mental-health related disorders have shown the biggest increase in long-term absence with just over half of companies reporting it as a cause, an increase of 5% in the last five years. The survey said this could be attributed to the long recession and austerity.
This increase also comes despite two thirds of companies implementing sickness absence programmes, while 68% of companies offer access to occupational health services for employees.
Over a quarter of companies also offer employee assistance programmes, health checks and health cash plans.
Meanwhile there is increasing evidence that manufacturers are seeing no benefits from the ‘Fit Note'.
Only 24% of employers believe that the ‘Fit Note' has resulted in employees returning to work earlier, compared to 40% who said that it had not.
More companies disagree (45%) than agree (16%) that the advice given by GPs about employees' fitness for work has improved, the research found.
Focus groups of employers are reporting they are seeing no improvement in return to work under the ‘Fit Note' system compared to the old ‘Sick Note'.
One third of companies did not receive any ‘Fit Notes' signed ‘may be fit for work', a figure which has remained more or less consistent in the four years the ‘Fit Note' has been operating.
Additonally 40% of companies said there was insufficient information in the ‘Fit Note' to make a decision on making work adjustments, up from 33% in 2012.
A fifth of companies had not seen any computer generated ‘Fit Notes' with employers reporting manual notes were still the most common.
In response, EEF is making the following recommendations:
• Government setting a cut-off date by which all GPs and medical professionals in hospitals will have received training in use of the ‘Fit Note'.
• Setting a similar cut-off date following which all ‘Fit Notes' must be computer generated.
• Spending some of the £170m currently earmarked for the Health & Work Service on the training of all 40,000 UK GPs in Occupational Health. EEF estimates this would cost approximately £6m.
• Make the Health & Work Service mandatory for employees to be referred as opposed to the voluntary scheme currently proposed.
• Allow companies to offset the cost of intervention where they pay for treatment against business costs as an allowable business expense. EEF's survey shows half of companies already do this and a greater incentive would encourage more to do so. This would help employees return to work earlier and help reduce pressure on the NHS.
Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at EEF said: ""From now on the focus has to be on reducing long-term absence which is only going to happen if we up our game. This must start by making the ‘Fit Note' work so that it can make real inroads on delivering the objective of reducing unnecessary sickness absence."
Iain Laws, managing director - UK Healthcare at Jelf Employee Benefits, added: "We believe that every day the Health & Work Service is delayed, it costs UK manufacturers time and money in lost productivity and additional administration in getting employees back to work."