Figures from the group risk industry have welcomed the launch of the government's flagship Fit for Work service which provides a basic set of back-to-work services for employers to tackle absenteeism.
The service is being introduced in stages, with the first to launch being the advice service, a separate service is provided for Scotland.
Previously known as the Health and Work Service, it provides occupational health related assessments and support for those absent from work for four weeks or more.
Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life said: "Anything an employer or an employee can do to get support from four weeks must be seen as a good thing. The message that to get in early on every employee on every absence has definitely not gone home.
"For example we launched our early intervention service in January 2014 to 320,000 people and we've been disappointed that our adviser community has not really promoted free vocational rehabilitation to every single employee. Now perhaps that's because it's not genuinely understood that early intervention prevents long-term absence.
"If you have an absence that lasts longer than six weeks then mental health begins to supersede mental health."
He continued: "The four week point is the latest point you really want to get involved with people, that's been acknowledged by the Fit For Work service. The plea from income protection providers, and I think I probably speak for all of them is, the Fit For Work service provides an opportunity to promote the early intervention services of us insurers at the optimum time to be involved. If advisers continue to put claim forms in at week 20, 26, 28 then the damage is more often than not already done."
Katharine Moxham, spokeswoman for Group Risk Development described the Fit For Work service as "a positive step in the right direction."
She continued: "The government has recognised the role of the employer in helping employees to return to work and also that some employers need some support in order to facilitate that. I think that once it's rolled out it will begin to alert employers to the fact that there is a basic requirement to make reasonable adjustments under the equality act. If it gives employers an idea of what good looks like it will also give them a better idea of the value of group income protection and all the services that come with that."
However Moxham warned the service would be "light-touch" compared to group income protection.
She added: "It won't help to implement the recommendations it makes, it won't help to source any treatment recommendations it makes to help employees back to work, whereas the group risk industry does give that level of extra support. I really do think ultimately it will bring home the value of what we do."
"The idea of the Fit For Work service is great, where it perhaps falls down initially, and this might change, is that it's entirely voluntary on the part of an employee and an employer. An employee could say once the GP refers them "no I'm not going," an employee could refuse consent to the return to work plan being shared with the employer and the employer doesn't have to implement the return to work plan."
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