The government’s flagship health assessment service is to be significantly reduced from spring 2018 after a survey found 65% of GPs had not referred a single person to the scheme in the previous year.

Fit for Work was introduced in 2014 as a free occupational health assessment and advice service available to employers, employees and GPs to help manage sickness absence. Once an employee reached, or was expected to reach, four weeks of sickness absence they could be referred to Fit for Work by their GP or their employer. The employee would then be assessed by an occupational health professional and a Return to Work Plan issued, containing advice and recommendations to help assist the employee back to work.

Following low referral rates, the government has announced the assessment services will be scrapped by spring 2018. No new referrals will be accepted in England and Wales after the 15th December 2017 with the assessment service ceasing completely by 31st March 2018. In Scotland, the assessment service provided by Fit for Work Scotland will cease by 31st May 2018.

The removal of the assessment service will not affect employers with private occupational health schemes in place. For those who relied on Fit For Work referrals as part of their absence and medical capability procedures, it is crucial they are reviewing their procedures to ensure they are not leaving a gap in their support for employees. OH assessments are a significant tool for employers to support the health and wellbeing of their employees, to help employers identify reasonable adjustments for disabled employees and to support an employee’s return to work.

To fill the gap left by removing the assessment services, the government has announced a strategy to help a million more disabled individuals into work over the next decade. Part of the strategy includes expanding the current ‘fit note’ scheme. As it stands, only GPs are able to issue a fit note. The government is considering expanding the scheme to a wider group of healthcare professionals, including physiotherapists and psychiatrists. This would allow better tailoring of the fit note to support a successful return to work, however, this is currently only at the planning stage.

Need advice on supporting an employee back to work after a period of sickness? Our specialist absence management team can help – speak to your HR expert for more information.