New Health and Work Service a first step
The Government yesterday launched their “Health and Work Service”. This will encourage GPs to refer any worker who is off sick for more than a month for an occupational health assessment, the results of which will be given to their employer.
This is a positive move, as there is good evidence that the longer a person is off work, the less likely they will be to return to work and four weeks is probably the best time to start looking at what can be done to support them back to work. For that reason unions have generally been supportive of the idea.
However the problem is that an assessment in itself is of no use unless it is acted upon, and the new Health and Work Service stops there. There is nothing to compel employers to act on the assessment, and many will ignore it or be unwilling to pay the cost of a referral to a physiotherapist/consultant/ergonomist etc. Our other concern is that the focus of the assessment is to get them back to work, not to get them healthy again – and the two things are not necessarily the same. There is always a danger of people being rushed back into work too quickly, resulting in them going off sick again.
Unions have also expressed concerns over confidentiality, possible conflict between advice given by the assessment and the GP, and the effect on existing occupational health services provided through employers, but if these are sorted out and this is seen as being a genuine attempt to support workers when they are ill then we want to help make the scheme work.
Predictably the DWP press release has not really helped to sell the proposal. It talks more about getting people off benefits than about the actual service, despite the fact that the scheme is about preventing people getting on to benefits and has nothing about getting them off benefits.
I have written before about the fact that DWP press officers are being forced to become mouth pieces of the conservative party and this release is yet another example of this, making unsubstantiated claims that “working-age ill health” costs £100 million a year, a figure that is nothing to do with this service. This has resulted in the predictable headlines in the press about sickness absence being out of control, or the scheme being presented as a “crackdown” on sickness absence. Both of which are nonsense. In fact sickness absence is at its lowest level for over 20 years and Britain’s sickness rates compare favourably with other European countries.
Of course what the Government is actually proposing is a long way from our ideal which would be early access to NHS occupational health provision both in the workplace and through GPs, but at least it is a small step in the right direction, and we don’t see many of these nowadays.