The Government-commissioned review of the sickness absence system in the UK has been published this week.

Led by David Frost, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, and health adviser Dame Carol Black, the review makes a number of recommendations to reduce the £13 billion benefits bill.

According to the DWP, around 140 million working days are lost each year to sickness absence in Great Britain.

The recommendations include:

* Employment law should be modified to make it easier for both employers and employees to end an employment relationship, where the parties could negotiate a financial settlement, but where neither would be judged to be at fault.
* The Government should look at options around the use of a ‘protected conversation’ to allow employers the chance to have an honest, without prejudice conversation with their staff about their condition.
* A ban on pre-employment health questionnaires should be considered.
* Government should fund a new Independent Assessment Service (IAS). The IAS would provide an in-depth assessment of an individual’s physical and/or mental function. It would also provide advice about how an individual on sickness absence could be supported to return to work. This service should usually be accessed when an individual’s absence spell has lasted around four weeks.
* Government should revise fit note guidance to ensure that judgements about fitness to work move away from only job-specific assessments.
* Expenditure by employers targeted at keeping sick employees in work (or speeding their return to work) such as medical treatments or vocational rehabilitation should attract tax relief. This should be targeted at basic-rate taxpayers.
* Existing tax relief on employee assistance programmes (EAPs), which provide information, advice and counselling on a variety of issues causing absence and/or performance problems should be retained.
* Record-keeping obligations under SSP should be abolished to reduce employer administrative burdens.
* Government should update its Employers Charter to address misconceptions around sickness absence management, especially legal uncertainty.
* Government should carry out further research into the reasons behind the number of people claiming ill health benefits who come straight from work, especially from smaller employers, but appear not to have been paid sick pay by their employer beforehand.
* Public sector employers should take immediate action to bring the worst performing parts of the public sector up to the standards of the best. Government should also review OSP in the public sector.
* The introduction of a new job-brokering service to help long-term sick employee find new work (where appropriate) rather than claim benefits. This service should be offered free in cases of very long-term absence, but should be available earlier for individuals and employers that are willing to pay for it.

Diane Buckley, managing director of Legal & General Group Protection, welcomed the review, saying: “Employers often tell us that they need more support to help their staff when they can’t work because of illness and todays review shows that the government is taking these issues seriously. It shows how important it is for responsible employers to intervene early to help their staff if they become ill our experience with workforces up and down the countryhas shown time and again that prevention is better than cure.

“The government has also today said that it sees a clear role for experts to deliver early intervention support in the workplace. The review clearly recognises that group income protection providers could play a key role in cutting workplace sickness and absence and delivering better quality support for employees.”

However, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: “The current method of sickness absence certification and pay is not in need of a major overhaul. Unions are concerned that however well-intended this report, there is a danger it will be seized upon by some rogue employers as an excuse to force people back to work before they are good and ready.

“The report, while very limited in its remit, recognises that the current sick pay scheme is broadly fit for purpose, but makes a number of recommendations in respect of job-brokering and an independent assessment system which could be used to force sick and injured employees back to work far sooner than is good for their health.

“While employers need more advice and support in dealing with sickness absence, the biggest gains can be made by supporting workers through early access to rehabilitation, as well as increasing prevention measures to stop them becoming ill or injured in the first place.

“Unfortunately, because of the narrow remit that the government gave to the review, these issues are not covered. Instead employers could attempt to use the proposals to challenge the advice from a GP or seek to move someone who has become disabled to another job rather than make adjustments to keep them in their existing one.

“The report also fails to address the huge issue of ‘presenteeism’ where workers come in to work when they should be off sick, despite evidence that this is a major and growing problem in the workplace.”