The Back to Work Plan and ‘fit note’ reform

What is the Back to Work Plan?

The Chancellor’s Back to Work Plan was announced as part of the Autumn Statement 2023 to assist up to 1,100,000 people with long-term health conditions, disabilities or long-term unemployment to look for and stay in work. This scheme builds on the spring budgets £7 billion employment package announced earlier this year and includes £2.5 billion of investment over the next 5 years. The Chancellor’s statement outlined how growing our economy ‘means that we must address the rise in people who aren’t looking for work’; the reforms to the Back to Work plan therefore focus largely on ensuring people stay in work, return to work, and removing the barriers that stop people from working if they are able to.

The proposed Back to Work scheme will come as a welcome introduction for employers to better support their employees in returning to work, as well as assisting employees with additional support so that they can continue to work, or return to work faster after a period of illness. One of the stages of the scheme due to face changes is the ‘fit note’. It is an important aspect of the scheme for employers to consider as the revised ‘fit note’ will no doubt raise complications as to how employers should now manage their employees whilst ensuring they comply with legislation. This article will discuss the proposed reform to the ‘fit note’ and just how employers should manage these changes to remain prepared for legislative change.

What can we expect the ‘fit note’ reform to look like?

The Statement of Fitness for Work, more commonly known as the ‘fit note’, is an official statement from a registered healthcare professional giving their medical opinion on a person’s fitness for work. Introduced in 2010, the note offers support to employees and employers in how best to manage an employee’s period of illness.

In light of the fit note reform, a small number of Integrated Care Systems (ICS) in England will trial increased access to health and employment support and referrals for employees who have received a fit note for a prolonged period, as well as new designs of the fit note reform with improved triaging and signposting*. Where the fit note previously focused on keeping employees out of work for recovery, the focus will be on their return with improved access to specialised work and health support. GPs will continue to play a crucial role where peoples’ health acts as a barrier to work, however, the Chancellor has stressed the need for reform on ‘the time and expertise needed to hold the work and health conversation effectively and direct people to the right support.’

*Information taken from website.

With legislation yet to be confirmed, we believe the governments’ consultation commencing in 2024 to improve fit note assessments and integrate quicker access to specialised employment and health support suggests employers will also have to consider reasonable adjustments for their employees. For example working from home where feasible to assist in increasing the speed of the return to work process. The additional support for employees, if correctly enforced, is certainly welcome news in assisting with maintaining workforces and allowing workers faster integration into work.

This is likely just the start of the Back to Work Plan, with further changes also proposed for these key programmes:

  • NHS Talking Therapies- increasing the number of people benefitting from mental health treatment by an additional 384,000 people over the next five years.
  • Individual Placement and Support- helping an additional 100,000 people with severe mental illness find jobs over the next five years.
  • Universal Support- matching 100,000 people with job roles over the next five years.
  • Work Well- developing the service announced in the spring budget 2023 to support people at risk of unemployment due to sickness or disability.

What are employers’ responsibilities?

It is unclear yet just how employers will have to regulate and manage employees under these new changes.

There is certainly concern as to whether the stress placed on speeding up employees’ return to work will place more of a burden on employers potentially managing an unfit workforce, and if issues could arise with differentiating between when a worker needs to be off work and when reasonable adjustments should be made. It is therefore important that employees understand their legal obligations in terms of employee rights, and employers keep up to date with the latest regulations in ensuring suitable policies are put in place. The Government has stated that it will ‘work with employers and business representatives to develop and promote best employment practices for employees with health and disability issues’; suggesting there will be further implementation of suitable guidance for employers on how they can best support their employees.

Important notes on employers’ policies

Employers must understand the importance of staying afoot of governmental changes to ensure employees are provided with the correct support, and that the support is compliant with workplace policies and legal obligations.

*Published data from January to March 2021 shows how 47.13% of successful employment tribunals were due to written statements of terms and conditions failing to be adhered to by employers.

*Most recently analysed data due to disruption to tribunal statistics during a transition to a new database.

These tribunals had the highest success rate and exemplify just how important enforcing and understanding policies is.

Whilst the Back to Work Plan is being phased in, we anticipate that there will be challenges for employers to navigate and manage. At this stage, we urge employers to ensure they are prepared for any proposed changes by keeping updated with the latest regulations and ensuring suitable policies are implemented. It is crucial that policies are suitable for your workplace and understood fully by management through proper training of management staff. Careful planning and revision of policies in the early stages could prevent workforce claims that may be both timely and costly.

If you would like to understand further how your business may be impacted by the changes announced in the 2023 Autumn Statement, contact one of our employment law specialists using the form below. 

We always recommend that you seek advice from a suitably qualified adviser before taking any action. The information in this article only serves as a guide and no responsibility for loss occasioned by any person acting or refraining from action as a result of this material can be accepted by the authors or the firm.

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