Ah well, there you go. Already slipping into history along with 2017, and your New Year’s Resolutions is the UK Government’s Fit for Work Scheme.
This was a scheme with the laudable aim of reducing costly staff absence by focussing the minds of both employer and employee on the therapeutic and economic benefits of getting sick people back to work at the earliest point, even if it was before they were fit for the full rigours of the job. The scheme made little distinction between the disabled and the merely perennially sickly, and concentrated instead on the practical questions of what could be done to get an employee back into the workplace and what he could usefully do when he got there. But any such system, unless resourced up to the eyeballs, will inevitably entail the giving of mainly fairly generic advice and then the handing of responsibility back to the employer, and though it probably all seemed like a good idea at the time, now it is dead.
This is apparently due to an almost total lack of employer interest in using it, which may in turn may have been the product of its essentially entirely superfluous nature. In our comments on the official Guidance to the Scheme in May 2015, we noted that referrals to the Fit for Work Scheme were not to be taken as replacing employers’ occupational health functions, internal or external, and did not relieve employers of the responsibility for managing staff absence or for making appropriate accommodations or adjustments for sick or disabled employees.
It also left employers having to generate good reasons for rejecting return-to-work recommendations made by people who had in most cases not met either employer or employee and who did not necessarily (or indeed probably) know anything much about the workplace into which that return was being promoted. Though the Guidance made it clear that no recommendations from Fit for Work imposed any actual legal obligation on the employer, it would nonetheless inevitably be the case that failure to follow them could generate some awkward moments on the witness stand in later unfair dismissal or disability discrimination proceedings. The obvious question for employers – why saddle yourself with that extra responsibility when you have plenty of them already?
The Fit for Work website and helpline (0800 032 6235) will remain in place for the time being. The website offers advice across a wide range of common and less common workplace health issues from autism and bunions to debt and loneliness via bereavement and (faintly disconcertingly) ebola. However, a number of the online resources are specifically addressed at employees, rather than those managing their staff’s health issues in the workplace. There is also a Fit for Work blog but this also seems to be dying on its feet, there being four posts in September 2017, three in October and just one each in November and December. Employers should not expect any great or penetrating insights from the website – the main advice to counter social isolation, for example, is to get out and meet people.