Intended for healthcare professionals


Government sets up new service to tackle long term sickness absence

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 23 January 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f465
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. 1London

The government is setting up an independent assessment and advisory service to help move people off long term sickness benefits and back to work.

The occupational health advice service will provide employers and GPs with access to independent occupational health advice and will offer help to employees who have been signed off as sick to get back into work. GPs will be able to refer a patient to the service at any time, and employers will be able to refer a staff member who has been on sick leave for at least four weeks. The service, which has been piloted in parts of England, Scotland, and Wales, is expected to be rolled out next year.

It is hoped that the initiative will stop thousands of people moving onto long term sickness benefits, save employers up to £160m (€190m; $255m) a year in statutory sick pay, and increase economic output by up to £900m a year.

David Freud, the minister for welfare reform, 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.”

Currently only 10% of employees of small firms have access to an occupational health service, whereas in larger firms the proportion is more than half.

The new service was announced in the government’s response1 to the independent review of sickness absence by the health and business experts Carol Black and David Frost, which made recommendations in 2011.2

In addition, the government intends to work alongside the Royal College of General Practitioners to improve GPs’ training in the area of work and health. It will also publish revised fit note guidance for GPs, emphasising the importance of assessing a person’s health in relation to work in general and not just for one specific job.

Frost said in a press statement, “Employers consistently report that the current system does not provide their employees with enough support to enable a smooth and planned return to work.”

Black added, “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.

“The changes being made by the government today will begin to change that. They will ensure that employers and employees get the best possible access to occupational health advice and support. And the new service will also provide much needed support for GPs too, so they can spend more time helping their patients and less time having to police the benefit system.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f465


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