Employers facing lengthy staff sickness absences can now refer employees to the fully operational Fit for Work (FfW) health service.
The free service is available to employers across England and Wales, providing extra assistance for employees absent from work for more than four weeks due to illness.
This includes a telephone-based health assessment followed by a personalised return to work plan.
FfW was designed to be particularly helpful for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) employing a large proportion of the workforce but with no or limited occupational health support.
Together with helping employers to reduce the impact of long-term sickness absence on their businesses, the service may potentially help employers cut sick pay costs.
The gap in occupational health provision was identified in the Health at Work - an independent review of sickness absence report by Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE where it was recognised as one of the obstacles to people, particularly those working in SMEs, from returning to work.
Employees referred to FfW would receive an in-depth consultation with an occupational health professional who will explore all the issues that might be preventing a return to work.
This will include work-related and wider personal issues as well as health matters.
They will then work with the employee to agree a personalised return to work plan.
The launch comes as YouGov research showed just under a third (31%) of employees do not have access to occupational health advice, and employers and employees alike wanted more support in returning to work from a sickness absence.
Government statistics also highlight that around 815,000 working people in England each year have sickness absence of four weeks or more.
Lord Freud, Welfare Reform Minister, said: "Fit for Work will ensure that people get the right help when they need it to get back to work so they can continue to support themselves and their families."
Frost said: "Now Fit for Work has launched, all employees and employers across the country have access to free occupational health advice and support for the very first time.
"The service will provide much needed support, particularly to small businesses."
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