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Government unveils scheme to tackle long-term sickness absence at work

Employers will be helped to tackle long-term sickness absence in the workplace, after an independent assessment and advisory service aimed at getting people back to work and away from long-term sickness benefits was announced yesterday.

Minister for welfare reform, Lord Freud, unveiled the scheme, and said it will save employers up to £160 million a year in statutory sick pay and increase economic output by up to £900 million a year.

The new service is part of a series of measures announced yesterday by the Government to help employers support their staff and prevent employees needlessly going onto sickness benefits.

It is part of the Government's response to the report The health at work - Independent review of sickness absence, carried out by national director for health and work, Dame Carol Black and former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, David Frost.

Government said only 10% of employees of small firms have access to an occupational health service, compared with more than half of staff in larger firms. It claims this new service will enable employers of all sizes to access expert advice to help them manage sickness absence in the workplace.

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.

"It's further proof that this Government is confronting all the challenges facing Britain and making sure we compete and thrive in the global race."

Professor Stephen Bevan, director of the workforce effectiveness at the Work Foundation and the campaigning coalition, Fit for Work, said: "We welcome the Government's response to the Sickness Absence Review, as the declining health of the UK's ageing workforce is likely to be a threat to productivity and economic growth for at least the next thirty years.

"The proposal to introduce a health and work assessment advisory service to support workers, GPs and employers after the fourth week of sickness absence is especially welcome."

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) has also welcomed the review. It encouraged ministers to follow the recommendations of the review and to extend tax relief to occupational health and vocational rehabilitation services in the 2013 budget.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said: "Research shows that the longer people are off sick, the less likely they are to make a successful return to work; after six months' absence from work, there is only a 50% chance of someone making a successful return.

"Evidence also suggests that occupational health services are the most effective means of helping people with health problems back to work, yet only a minority of small firms provide access to these."

Willmott added: "The new service will therefore fill a gap in the market by providing free, independent, objective assessment and advice to help people make quicker and lasting returns to work."

Frost said: "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.

"Overall, the measures proposed will reduce costs to business and prevent people needlessly going onto sickness benefits."

The independent occupational health assessment and advice service is expected to be up and running in 2014.