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Government to pilot new service to tackle sick leave

Due to long-term sickness, 2.8 million people are classed as economically inactive in the UK

The government has announced it will pilot WorkWell, a new service to help people with health conditions stay in and return to work, in 15 areas across England from October 2024.

The £64 million pilot is a voluntary service for people with a health condition or disability, which will allow individuals to self refer or be referred by their GP, employer or the community sector.

The service is set to provide people who have long-term health conditions with an assessment to understand the health and social barriers they face at work, as well as a gateway to employment support and local health services.

WorkWell also offers people personalised support from a 'work and health coach' with drawing up a plan for progressing at work.

The plan comes as part of government reforms to welfare announced by prime minister Rishi Sunak on 22 April 2024, in which he claimed that Britain’s “sick note culture” was contributing to the country’s “spiralling” disability welfare bill.

Sunak announced that GPs would no longer be responsible for signing people off work. A review of the fit note system is expected to be carried out as part of the initiative. 

Joanna Hurry, disability and employment consultant, suggested that the WorkWell scheme would not address the reasons for long-term sick leave.

Read more: Is Sunak right about "sick-note culture"?

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “The pilot is a start, but it is designed to be a series of short-term interventions. While the programme may show promise for some individuals, it is likely to have limited effectiveness for others. 

“Its premise is to resolve a lack of economic empowerment rather than offering the best long-term sustainable support. 

“WorkWell does not address the underlying issues at play here. These include access to long-term medical treatment and support, as well as education, training and employment opportunities.”

She noted that the pilot did not account for long waiting times for medical appointments.

Hurry argued that the WorkWell scheme also does not account for unplanned sickness.

She added: “The programme relies on the concept that people can plan to overcome the health and social barriers they face.

“The reasons for being out of work with a health condition or disability are often multifaceted and complex, and require nuanced and coordinated professional responses.

“There are some practical concerns such as the lack of detail about the qualifications of a work and health coach and the limits of the support offered.”

Read more: HR leaders see mental health absences rise, report shows

Sandi Wassmer, CEO of the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, reminded HR magazine that training might be needed to support people with sickness in returning to work.

She commented: “The government needs to consider that some disabled people, particularly those who have been out of the workforce for longer periods of time, will need different levels of training and support to be work-ready. 

“Some may need additional training in skills they are lacking, others may simply be lacking in confidence. 

“To be successful, schemes such as WorkWell should ideally take all these factors into consideration.”

Wassmer added: “The voluntary nature of the WorkWell scheme raises concerns about the programme's effectiveness and reach. 

“Ultimately its success will depend on uptake, particularly from employers.

"Additionally, a more nuanced approach, that isn’t one-size-fits-all, is needed to cater to the individual needs of the prospective employees."