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Dealing with sickness absences in the workplace

31 August 2015

According to the Office of National Statistics 131 million days were lost to sickness absences in the UK in 2013.

The Fit for Work service (FFW) (previously known as the Health and Work Assessment and Advisory service) has been introduced by the Government to help employers manage sickness absence.

FFW provides advice through a website, telephone line and free referrals for an occupational health (OH) assessment for employees. FFW is not mandatory for employers but following guidance published by the Department for Work and Pensions pharmacy owners are encouraged to update their sickness absence policies to reflect the availability of the FFW.

When will FFW be accessible to all employees?

The FFW service has now been rolled out to GPs in limited regions across the UK and it is expected that it will be available to the rest of the country this autumn.

Who is eligible to use the FFW service?

Employees will normally be referred by their GP, but pharmacy owners can also make a free referral after four weeks of absence.

To be eligible for referral by the pharmacy owner, the employee must:

  • have four weeks' absence from work
  • have a reasonable likelihood of making at least a phased return to work
  • not have been referred for a FFW assessment within the last 12 months
  • give explicit consent which is informed and freely given.

The practicalities of FFW

The assessment with an OH professional will usually take place over the telephone.It is anticipated that employees will usually be contacted within two working days after they are referred to the FFW.

Where a face-to-face assessment is required, this is expected to take place within five working days of this judgement being made. Employees may claim reasonable travel expenses from the FFW service provider for attending an assessment.

The assessment will involve producing a Return to Work Plan (the Return Plan) with the employee, which will include advice and recommendations to help the employee return to work more quickly.

The Return Plan will be shared with both the pharmacy owner and the employee's GP, with the employee's consent. The Return Plan acts as evidence of sickness absence so pharmacy owners will not need to request a fit note during the period covered by FFW.

Pharmacy owners do not have to follow the recommendations in the Return Plan, but failure to do so could cause legal issues in some cases, particularly if the employee is disabled or is dismissed or unable to return to work.

An employee will be discharged from FFW when they have returned to work (including a phased return) or, if a return to work has not been possible, after three months.

Employees are not obliged to share the Return Plan with their employer. As a result, individuals could seek to avoid returning to work when they otherwise could perform some or all of their duties if the Return Plan was implemented.

In practice, pharmacies may struggle to benefit from the new measures. While GPs can refer patients to the FFW within the first four weeks of their absence from work, pharmacy owners will have to wait until the employee has been absent for four weeks before they can refer an employee. 

This will inconvenience smaller pharmacies which lack the resources to absorb an absent employee's duties. There is also a concern that the FFW will fail to grasp employers' business needs and consider their operation and available resources when making recommendations in the Return Plan.

Pharmacy owners should be aware than an employee may be referred to FFW by their GP without their knowledge. FFW may get in touch with an employer before producing a Return Plan but does not have to do so. The first pharmacy owners may know about the referral may be receiving a Return Plan.

What should pharmacy owners do now?

  • Pharmacy owners who do not have an OH service in place should consider making use of FFW to help manage sickness absence. Those who already have OH schemes are likely to find that their existing service is more comprehensive than FFW.
  • Although participation in FFW is not mandatory, pharmacy owners might want to consider including appropriate wording in their sickness absence policies and employment contracts which requires employees to attend assessments and abide by Return Plans if the service is engaged.
  • Pharmacy owners should ensure that relevant individuals have the appropriate training or knowledge to deal with any Return Plans that are resolved.
  • Pharmacy owners should consider a system to deal with the administration of Return Plans to ensure that they are acted on or that the reasons for not acting on them are recorded.

Pharmacy owners should note that from January 1 2015, the Government has introduced a tax exemption of £500 per year, per employee where the employer funds the cost of medical treatments recommended to help their employees return to work.

This article was first published in Pharmacy Business, August 2015.

This article was written by Becky Lawton. For more information please contact Becky on +44 (0)1483 252 577 or at rebecca.lawton@crsblaw.com