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The sick leave clampdown

The new government scheme to cut long-term sickness could influence your entitlements to support, sick pay and leave, explains lawyer Andrew Moore

The new government scheme to cut long-term sickness could influence your entitlements to support, sick pay and leave, explains lawyer Andrew Moore

Being a healthcare professional doesn't stop pharmacists from suffering health problems of their own. NHS workers took more than 4 per cent of their working days as sick leave between January and March 2014, figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show. This level of absence is unlikely to cause any issues for employees or employers. But if you're one of the many people in the UK suffering from long-term sickness - almost 1 million employees each year take sick leave for a month or more, the government says - you are set to face new requirements that could affect your entitlements to support, pay and leave.

From the end of 2014, the government will start to roll out a "new, proactive approach" to sickness absence, explains Andrew Moore, associate and human resources specialist at law firm Eversheds. The health and work service will provide occupational health (OH) advice and support for employees, employers and GPs who deal with long-term sickness. Its objective will be to help people with a health condition to stay in or return to work.

The scheme

So what will the scheme mean in practice? Under the new regime, employers will be able to refer an absent employee for a health assessment after just four weeks or less in some cases, Mr Moore explains. The service will be delivered by OH professionals, who will be expected to look beyond an employee's primary health condition to explore and understand all the reasons for absence.

"The rationale behind the new scheme is to motivate both employers and employees to review their circumstances once a health issue arises," Mr Moore says. With this in mind, the OH professionals will produce a return-to-work plan – normally presented as a timetable – that contains specific advice and recommendations to facilitate an employee's return to work within a specified timeframe.

It is too early to say, though, what form these recommendations might take. They are expected to be broad, says Mr Moore. The government recently provided an example case study of an employee suffering stress and anxiety that suggested steps such as a gradual return to work, a change of work activities, as well as access to therapy and debt-counselling. In cases such as these, where the employee is disabled by virtue of their stress and anxiety, it may be seen as reasonable for the employer to pay for the counselling.

Employer responsibility

The scheme is likely to worry those on long-term sick leave who have fears over their job security. But employers should not use the recommendations to justify dismissing an employee, Mr Moore stresses. Any health assessment is expected to be brief and so is likely to be viewed by an employment tribunal as a guide only, he says. And if it does recommend paying for treatment or a long period of absence, employers should take note of this. Employers who reject the recommendations without proper consideration could find themselves losing a claim for unfair dismissal or disability discrimination, Mr Moore points out.

It is also the duty of the employer to fully consider all the information given to them. Employers may well receive different information from an employee's regular GP than the OH consultant, who only makes a brief assessment. This needn't be cause for panic. Where contradictory evidence exists, employers should always view all available evidence when taking any decisions regarding employment, Mr Moore says.

There is also an onus on employees to co-operate, though. Although participation in the scheme is not compulsory, Mr Moore stresses that employees who refuse may find themselves in difficulties. "They risk not being provided with further notes from their GPs signing them off work, may jeopardise their right to sick pay and other entitlements, and may place themselves at risk of disciplinary action by their unreasonable conduct," he warns.

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