New 'Fit for Work' scheme will help retailers manage absence, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 26 Jan 2015 | 8:00 am | 3 min. read

FOCUS: Retailers should review their absence policies ahead of the launch of a new UK government service to help employers manage problematic or long-term absence. 

The scheme could help save retailers some of the cost of managing absence, but they will need to know about it because employees may be referred to it directly by their GP.

The government-backed Fit for Work scheme is due to be fully operational by the beginning of May. With its high transient workforce and higher levels of atypical working, the retail sector has traditionally struggled with high absence levels, so retailers should make themselves familiar with the scheme now.

While larger retailers may already have robust occupational health policies in place, absence management can be a time-consuming and expensive process, particularly for smaller companies that do not have in-house support. However, help is at hand for the industry following the launch of

Before then, all retailers regardless of size will need to have a clear, effective absence management policy in place. Although access to the new scheme will be free, and open to employers of every size throughout England, Wales and Scotland, the UK government has been clear from the start that it is intended to complement, rather than replace, existing occupational health services. Large retailers may find that existing policies, developed over many years and tailored to their business, are a more effective means of managing absence.

As long as HR policies are consistent and robust, there is nothing to stop an employer choosing to implement Fit for Work only, or even a mixture of Fit for Work and in-house occupational health services. A two-phase approach may be appropriate for some companies, where an employee is initially referred to the Fit for Work service with a company-chosen scheme then used if absence does not improve or there are more complex issues to consider.

Retailers must also bear in mind that they will not be able to refer an employee to the Fit for Work assessment service until they have been absent for four weeks, although a GP will be able to make a referral once the employee is likely to be absent for four weeks. Employees will also be discharged from the service if it is not able to offer further assistance or after three months, if a return to work is not yet possible. In addition, an employer will not be able to force an employee to use any part of the Fit for Work service, and the service will not be able to contact the employer even to share any return to work recommendations without the employee's consent.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has published guidance for employers wishing to implement the new scheme, as well as separate guidance for employees and GPs. The guidance recommends that employers consider now whether to update their sickness absence policies and procedures to reflect the availability of the Fit for Work service, as well as to alert them to the existence of the Fit for Work website and telephone line. These services, which make up the more general 'advice' element of the scheme, became available in December.

It will not be compulsory for employers to refer employees to the Fit for Work scheme, nor to implement any recommendations highlighted in the Return to Work plan produced by the service once an employee has been discharged. However, every retailer should make themselves aware of the details of the new scheme as an employee may also be referred by their GP and employees that receive a Return to Work plan will not need to produce a doctor's 'fit note' unless they remain absent after being discharged from the service.

Retailers could also receive tax breaks if they pay for medical treatment that has been recommended by the Fit for Work scheme or by their own in-house occupational health service. Previously, the cost of any medical intervention funded or provided by an employer was likely to be liable for tax as either a benefit in kind or as earnings. DWP guidance confirms that this tax exemption will be limited to £500 per member of staff per tax year, with any payments over this limit liable for income tax and national insurance contributions on the excess.

Paul Gillen is an employment law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind