Ahead of next week’s Autumn Statement, the government has unveiled its new ‘Back to Work’ Plan’. The package of employment focused support is aimed at helping small businesses address the number of workers currently on long-term sick leave.
This year has seen consistent records set for the numbers of employees out of work due to ill health. In July, official figures showed that 2.5m people were not currently working following a spike in stress-related burnout, exacerbating worker shortages for employers.
The additional support comes alongside tougher sanctions for people who don’t look for work, including those who are currently claiming Universal Credit.
In a press release, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, said: “We must address the rise in people who aren’t looking for work – especially because we know so many of them want to and with almost a million vacancies in the jobs market the opportunities are there.”
Fit notes to be made fit for purpose
Amidst soaring levels of inactivity among working-age people, the Back to Work scheme has been billed as a way to help people “stay healthy, get off benefits and move into work”.
Targeting a joined-up approach to employment support, the package promises £2.5 billion of investment over the next five years to help those with mental health conditions stay in or find work.
It relies on increasing the number of people who can access frontline public health services like NHS Talking Therapies, a treatment for conditions such as depression and anxiety. The government says it will help an additional 384,000 people access the course by 2028.
Under the new plans, ministers will also trial unspecified reforms to the fit note process. Fit notes are medical certificates which workers must show to their employer if they are unable to work.
The government says it will “make it easier and quicker for people to get specialised work and health support, with improved triaging and signposting.”
Last year, changes to the legislation enabled nurses, occupational therapists, pharmacists, and physiotherapists to legally certify fit notes. At the time, the government said it would evaluate the impact of the changes at the end of 2023.
No funding announced for NHS yet
Combined, the government says the measures will serve to funnel over half a million people back into the UK workforce over the next five years. However, the scheme does not address one of the key underlying causes of the labour shortage: the NHS.
Stretched care services, exacerbated by worker strikes over the past year, have led to increasingly long wait lists at hospital and GP services. This has resulted in many employees on long-term sick leave unable to access care.
Last month, the now ex-health secretary, Steve Barclay, pushed for the NHS to receive £1bn in additional funding in the Autumn Statement to cover the costs of strikes and allow it to provide critical services including for mental health.
Responding to the announcement, shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall said: “This poor excuse of a proposal does nothing to fundamentally change the state of our health service or our Jobcentres after a decade of failure from the Tories.”
Incentives balanced out by penalties
Alongside further support measures for employers, the government has also announced tougher penalties for those who claim Universal Credit, but are still unemployed after six months.
As part of an expanded Restart scheme, this group will be given coaching, CV and interview skills, and training to help improve their chances of finding work. The scheme will be extended for two years until June 2026.
Universal Credit claimants who are still unemployed after the 12-month Restart programme will be given access to a work coach, who will find what the government describes as “mandatory work placements” for the claimant.
If a claimant refuses to accept the potential placement, their Universal Credit claim will be closed. This will also end their access to additional benefits such as free prescriptions and legal aid.
What does Back to Work mean for presenteeism?
Taking the stick approach to get more people back to work, many of whom will have physical or mental conditions, will raise red flags for some business owners.
While the government announcement does specify that only those who are able to work will have their Universal Credit removed, there is a risk that the new scheme could encourage presenteeism in the workplace.
Presenteeism is where staff turn up at their desks while feeling ill or burnt out. And, under UK employment law, those with long-term sickness count as having a disability in law, which means they may also have legal protections against dismissal.
This could end up doing more damage, with workers neglecting to take necessary sick leave and contributing to a growing engagement crisis in UK workplaces.
In October, Gympass’ second annual State of Work-Life Wellness Report found that 67% of UK employees report that their productivity is lower when they feel lonely, and less connected with their workplace.