From April, employers and GPs will be able to refer employees who are absent for four weeks to the Health and Work Service for an assessment.
The occupational health assessor will write a plan for the worker, employer and GP to enable the employee to return to work more quickly.
The service will also offer advice online and on the telephone. The government expects the provision to cut the time people spend off work by 20% to 40% and save employers £70 million a year.
Tunstall Healthcare HR director Gemma Reucroft criticised the Government for not providing enough detail about how the service would work in practice.
“Large employers are already likely to have occupational health services in place, so a service of this sort will not be relevant to them,” Reucroft said.
“It might be useful for some small employers, but I find it difficult to believe this will have a significant impact on employee absence generally.”
Reucroft told HR Magazine she was concerned that a generic occupational health provider would fail to understand employers’ unique business needs.
“There is a risk the advice will be generic in nature and not of the detailed variety that can really help employees back to work,” she said.
She also queried what impact the service would have on dismissals on grounds of ill-health. “Will an employer be penalised by a tribunal if they fail to engage with the service prior to proceeding with a dismissal – will it impact the fairness of the dismissal?
“It sounds good all well and good on the surface, but there needs to be more detail before any potential benefits could be assessed,” she added.
Reucroft’s concerns were shared by law firm HBJ Gateley senior associate Ann Frances Cooney.
She urged the Government to invest sufficiently in the service to ensure it did not become an “underweight body that is more likely to gum up the system rather than alleviate the current challenges”.
“Sickness absence is always a difficult thing to manage and is fraught with all kinds of challenges, so anything from Government which sets out to make that easier and more cost effective for businesses should be welcomed,” Cooney said.
“There are understandable questions around how the advisory service will work in practice, though, particularly when the Government has predicted more than half a million people will be referred to it every year.
“With the telephone-based service proposed, I think we’ll need to see a clearer idea about how that will deliver assessments which are appropriately robust compared to something a GP might produce after a face-to-face consultation.”
Business consultancy Buck Consultants UK managing director of health & productivity Martyn Anwyl warned the service could cause the creation of a two-tier system.
“A tender driven by price at the cost of service and ability to deliver the service may lead to a two-tier occupational health provision, similar to the NHS and private medical care,” he said.
“This could mean that employers looking for higher service levels continue to pay for their existing service and lose the benefit of receiving statutory sick pay.
“It will be interesting to see what metrics are adopted to determine success - especially bearing in mind there is no mandatory aspect to this,” he continued.
“The key value for employees and employers is not just aiding a return to work, but ensuring this is sustainable. A ‘generalised’ approach to occupational health delivery is unlikely to take full account of the specifics of an individual’s occupation or engage collaboratively with employers.”
A voluntary service
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman responded to the comments by emphasising the service would be non-compulsory.
“The service will complement more comprehensive employer occupational health provision, rather than duplicate existing services,” he said.
“When the service identifies occupational health provision is already available, it will find a way to work with that existing service. For example, it may contact the employer occupational health service to discuss their involvement to date.
“Similarly, an employer occupational health service could take forward any interventions recommended by the Health and Work Service.”
The spokesman said the service would particularly support small and medium-sized businesses, of which only one in 10 of provided occupational health services to employees compared to one in eight large employers. He assured the service would not provide generic plans to help employees return to work.
“The service will be delivered by healthcare professionals who have an occupational health qualification, occupational health experience, or are able to demonstrate experience and skills appropriate to working in an occupational health context,” he saisd.
“These professionals will understand the nature and variety of GB’s workplaces and their expertise will ensure that the service will identify the full range of issues preventing a return to work and provide appropriate advice in line with best practice.”
Government figures published this week showed some 960,000 employees were on sick leave for a month or more each year on average between October 2010 and September 2013.