Press release

New support to tackle long-term sickness absence

British businesses will be helped to tackle long-term sickness absence in the workplace.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

British businesses will be helped to tackle long-term sickness absence in the workplace thanks to a new independent assessment and advisory service aimed at getting people back to work and away from long-term sickness benefits, the Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud announced today.

The scheme will save employers up to £160 million a year in statutory sick pay and increase economic output by up to £900 million a year.

Currently, only 10 per cent of employees of small firms have access to an occupational health service, compared with more than half of staff in larger firms. The new service will enable employers of all sizes to access expert advice to help them manage sickness absence in the workplace.

This new initiative will ensure employers receive bespoke, independent advice for cases of sickness absence lasting more than four weeks. Experts agree this approach will help to stop thousands of people falling out of work and onto long-term sickness benefits.

The Minister for Welfare Reform 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.

It’s further proof that this Government is confronting all the challenges facing Britain and making sure we compete and thrive in the global race.

The lack of advice or support is one of the main barriers faced by employers tackling sickness absence in the workplace. Under the current system, the vast majority of fit notes declare employees to be unfit for work.

The new service is part of a series of measures announced today by the Government to help employers support their staff and prevent employees needlessly going onto sickness benefits, and it is part of the Government’s response to the recommendations of health and business experts Dame Carol Black and David Frost.

Dame Carol Black said:

I very much welcome the Government’s decision to press ahead with the new independent assessment and advisory service which David and I recommended in our Review.

A new independent assessment and advice service will address the sicknote culture and offer people the best possible support to get back to work quickly.

What David and I found in our Review is that far too many people with potentially manageable conditions - like stress or back pain - are effectively being signed off work for life, sliding from a short spell of sickness absence to a life of long-term benefit dependency.

The changes being made by the government today will begin to change that. They will ensure that employers and employees get the best possible access to occupational health advice and support. And the new service will also provide much-needed support for GPs too, so they can spend more time helping their patients and less time having to police the benefit system.

David Frost said:

Employers consistently report that the current system does not provide their employees with enough support to enable a smooth and planned return to work.

The proposed advisory and assessment service will give clear advice on which a business can make a judgement about when and on what circumstances their employee will return after a period of absence.

Overall, the measures proposed will reduce costs to business and prevent people needlessly going onto sickness benefits.

The independent occupational health assessment and advice service is expected to be up and running in 2014.

Notes for Editors:

  1. Fitness for work: the Government response to ‘Health at work - an independent review of sickness absence’ can be found here
  2. To support employers before the introduction of the health and work assessment and advisory service, pilot occupational health advice services will be continued to be funded for another year until 31 March 2014.
  3. Around 131 million working days are lost each year to sickness absence in Great Britain (approximately 4.5 days per worker or 1.8% of hours being lost).
  4. One million employees each year experience one or more spells of long-term absence (over 4 weeks).
  5. Employers pay £9 billion a year on sick pay and associated costs e.g. administrative and recruitment costs (£1.5 billion on Statutory Sick Pay; £6.9 billion on Occupational Sick Pay and £0.5 billion on associated costs).
  6. The state spends £13 billion annually on health-related benefits (Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Incapacity Benefit, Income Support, Severe Disability Allowance).
  7. Each year, we lose £15 billion in economic output from sickness absence.
  8. Each year, over 300,000 people leave work and make a claim to ESA - around 50% of the total claimants come from work.
  9. 62 per cent of employees don’t have access to Occupational Health services but this varies considerably by firm size. For example, more than half of employees of very large firms (500+ employees) have access to Occupational Health compared with just 10 per cent of employees of small firms (with up to 50 employees). Young, V. & Bhaumik, C. (2011b). Health and well-being at work: a survey of employees. DWP Research Report No 751. Available at:

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Published 17 January 2013