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Will new health body combat sick leave epidemic?

Scotland is famed for many things - heritage, innovation, and hospitality, to name a few - but unfortunately our health record forms as much of our national persona as anything else.

The rest of the UK doesn't fare an awful lot better, and that has a knock-on effect on businesses and other employers. With employers spending an estimated £9 billion a year on sick pay and the state picking up the tab for a further £13 billion on health related benefits, there was certainly a need for the Government to take action.

And so it has. In 2011, Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE published their review into the health of our workplace as a nation. The review, entitled 'Health at Work - An Independent Review of Sickness Absence', was tasked with investigating how to improve a culture of sickness absence in the UK and get people back to work.

The report made 13 recommendations, of which 10 were accepted outright by the Government. These included:

- A commitment to overhaul the current process of obtaining a fit note;

- Retaining the tax relief for Employee Assistance Programmes (which provide employers with a resource to help staff with personal problems);

- Abolishing the Percentage Threshold Scheme (which under certain circumstances allows employers to recover some Statutory Sick Pay)

- Improving sickness absence management in the public sector

- Abolishing the record-keeping obligations under Statutory Sick Pay

- Improving the Employer's Charter to help employers manage sickness absence more effectively.

The headline recommendation however, was that there should be formed an independent body in charge of, among other things, health assessments for employee. As a result, the new Health and Work Assessment and Advisory Service will come into existence this coming spring. A Scottish equivalent, the Health and Work Service, is currently being developed.

In a nutshell, the body will provide free advice and support to employers and employees, as well as to GPs and other healthcare professionals.

If someone is off sick for more than four weeks, GPs will have to refer employees to the service. If an employee refuses to cooperate, the GP won't be allowed to issue any more fit notes.

The service will review the employee's issues, make recommendations and provide a report to employers. The report must include "definitive advice" on next steps, adjustments and timescales for the employee's return to work. As well as the formal referrals, employers will have access to online and telephone advice.

So will it work? Like any of these things, there are bound to be teething troubles, and the service will probably always have its detractors for as long as it exists. The reasons for its creation make perfect sense, though.

Sickness absence is always a difficult thing to manage and anyone who has had to deal with it will confirm that it can be extremely tough to get right. Anything from Government which sets out to make that easier and more cost effective for businesses should be welcomed. For employees with genuine health issues, the service should in theory provide them with additional confidence in discussing sickness absence with their employers.

There have been many questions about how the new regime will work in practice, though, and it faces a not-insignificant challenge. The Government has predicted more than half a million people will be referred to it every year, and says it will save employers between £80-£165 million each year. If the service is to deliver even part of that, making sure it's properly resourced will be critical.

My feeling is we'll also need greater clarity about how a telephone or online system will deliver assessments which are appropriately robust compared to something a GP might produce after a face-to-face consultation. GPs themselves will have to get used to the new system and no doubt they will have questions of their own about how this will work.

It's easy to point out the negatives, of course. The Government has put together a good concept, which needs the support of all stakeholders to make it work, which I believe it can. The crucial element will be resource, however, if the service is to demonstrate its value in tackling a long-standing and very tricky issue for business.

Ann Frances Cooney is a senior associate at law firm HBJ Gateley.

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