British businesses are to be helped to tackle long-term sickness absence affecting their staff through a new, independent service aimed at getting people back to work.
The government says the scheme will save employers up to £160 million a year in statutory sick pay. The independent occupational health assessment and advice service is expected to be operational in 2014, with funding for pilot occupational health advice services running until 31 March 2014.
According to government figures, one million employees each year experience one or more periods of sickness absence lasting more than four weeks.
Currently, only ten per cent of employees of small firms have access to an occupational health service, compared with more than half of staff in larger firms.
The new service will enable employers of all sizes to receive bespoke, independent advice on managing cases of sickness absence lasting more than four weeks.
Announcing the measure on 17 January, Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud said: "Long-term sickness absence is a burden to business, to the taxpayer and to the thousands of people who get trapped on benefits when they could actually work.
"So for the first time, all employers, big or small, will have access to a service that offers the early support they need to keep people in work and fulfil their aspirations.
The new service forms part of the government’s response to recommendations made by in a review by health and business experts Dame Carol Black and David Frost.
Dame Carol Black said: "What David and I found in our review is that far too many people with potentially manageable conditions – like stress or back pain – are effectively being signed off work for life, sliding from a short spell of sickness absence to a life of long-term benefit dependency.”
She said the changes would ensure that employers and employees had “the best possible access to occupational health advice and support”.
David Frost added: "Employers consistently report that the current system does not provide their employees with enough support to enable a smooth and planned return to work. The proposed advisory and assessment service will give clear advice on which a business can make a judgement about when and on what circumstances their employee will return after a period of absence.”