Long-term sickness advisory service to benefit small businesses

The Government will launch a new, independent assessment and advisory service for businesses in 2014, aimed at getting people back to work following long-term sickness absence.

Minister for welfare reform Lord Freud said the service will help businesses to deal with long-term sickness absences, so that people can be moved from sickness benefits back to work.

The service will save employers up to £160 million a year in statutory sick pay costs and could boost the economy by up to £900 million a year, according to the Department for Work and Pensions. Under the initiative, employers will be able to receive bespoke, independent advice for sickness absences that last for more than four weeks.

Small firms can be particularly affected by long-term sickness absence, with only 10 per cent of employees in small firms having access to an occupational health service compared to more than half in larger firms.

Making the announcement, 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."

Ben Willmot, head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development welcomed the move.

"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 per cent 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. 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."

The initiative forms part of the Government's response to a review on sickness absence. The review also criticised the current 'fit-note' system, under which people can be signed off as completely unfit for work.