The lowdown for employers on UK government plans to tackle long-term absence

The lowdown for employers on UK government plans to tackle long-term absence

The recent Spring Budget might not have referenced anything new on UK government plans to tackle long-term absence and job loss, but it was pre-empted by a couple of significant developments. In this blog, we summarise the latest news in this area. And we comment on how existing absence support, in the shape of Group Income Protection, plays a significant and complementary role.

Over 2.5 million individuals are currently economically inactive due to long-term sickness, marking an increase of over 400,000 since the Covid-19 pandemic’s onset.

The UK government consulted last year on various ways to tackle this. Access to Occupational Health represented a central theme. 

Alongside the Autumn Statement  last November, the government said it would establish a taskforce to develop a voluntary minimum framework, which will set out the minimum level of Occupational Health intervention that employers could adopt to help improve health at work. 

A commitment to explore reform of the Fit Note process was also included in the Autumn Statement.

Latest news – new taskforce established
In February 2024, it was announced in the news that Professor Dame Carol Black would head up a taskforce to devise the OH framework, which is due to be launched this summer. 

One of the key goals of the taskforce is to remove barriers to offering OH by focusing on SMEs with restricted finances. It also aims to look at how OH services can complement other existing health and disability workplace initiatives.

Kay Needle, early intervention and rehabilitation expert at Generali UK Employee Benefits, comments on how the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) support provided as part of Group Income Protection complements OH: “For individuals who are already in the workplace but on the cusp of potential sickness absence, OH guidance can be valuable in helping to change the environment through adaptations and adjustments to ensure the workplace is accessible. And we know the importance of providing accessible and inclusive spaces, vs putting the onus on people with disabilities. 

“However, being newly diagnosed with a significant health condition often introduces new challenges and a period of adjustment for an individual. In such instances, VR support can be really beneficial in working closely with the individual to help them respond to those challenges and remain in their workplace, with the adjustments they need.

“In other words, OH is about wider, long-term, workplace risk management and mitigation, while VR is about short-term treatment and support for individuals .”

WorkWell scheme starts in April 2024
Alongside the taskforce and various other government initiatives, it was also announced in the Autumn Statement that funding for a pilot scheme would be provided to 15 areas in England. This is termed the WorkWell scheme. 

Again, a government-run initiative, the idea is that GPs and employers will be able to refer to this service, where someone is at risk of falling out of work and on to long-term sickness benefits. The goal being to help them stay in work or return to work.

The initial focus will be on musculoskeletal health and mental health, with rehabilitation in the form of things like life coaches, running clubs, community activities and NHS social prescribing, among other activities.

Reports suggest that, over time, some of these pilot locations will also help test reforms to the Fit Note process.

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