HAWS: the new tool for managing long term sickness absence

Statistics show that employees in the UK have the highest rate of sickness absence in Western Europe. Statistically, only 25% of employees, whose sickness absence lasts for 20 weeks or more, return to the same job. Managing long terms sickness absence is therefore a must for all employers and in 2011 the Government commissioned a review of sickness absence in Great Britain, which resulted in an independent report with recommendations as to how sickness absence may be reduced.

The key changes

The Government has taken some of these recommendations on board to assist employers and announced the abolition of statutory sick pay record keeping and the introduction of a government funded health and work assessment and advisory service, the Health and Work Service (HAWS), to make occupational health advice available to all employers and employees.

Automatic referrals

HAWS, which is due to start in late 2014, will have two elements:

  1.  Assessment: Following a referral by the employee’s own GP after 4 weeks’ sickness absence, a HAWS occupational health adviser will assess the employee with a view to determining the issues preventing the employee from returning to work and prepare a report.
  2. Advice: Employers, employees and GPs will be able to access HAWS advice via a phone line and website.
Return to work plan

HAWS will provide a Return to Work plan to the employee, the employer and the GP and will:

  •  Advise on the employee’s medical condition;
  • Assess the employee’s ability to come back to work;
  • Consider adjustments to help the employee back to work;
  • Consider what alternative employment may be available in the workplace if the employee is unable to return to his previous one.

The Return to Work Plan will function as evidence of fitness for work for Statutory Sick Pay purposes.
If an employee fails to engage with the Health and Work Service, the sanction is for the GP to refuse further fit notes for the employee and no Statutory Sick Pay will be available.

Possible disadvantages

HAWS will no doubt be welcome by many smaller and medium sized businesses as a management approach to reduce long-term sickness absences by taking control of the issue to assist the employee back to work or otherwise bring to a head any situations where the employee is unable or unwilling to return. However, employers who already operate their own occupational health services may be concerned about how the introduction of the Government funded service will sit with their own policy and practice on sickness absence management. The concerns are likely to relate to matters such as:

  • loss of control in the choice of the actual occupational health professional assessing the employee;
  • being left out of the assessment process with no real communication or opportunity to ask specific questions;
  • loss of control of the timing and delivery of the assessment with delays being a real risk with the Government funded services;
  • the extent of recommendations made by the professional health adviser on adjustments to be made in the work place. It is likely to be a real concern whether such recommended adjustments could be regarded as ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disability discrimination purposes and thereby leaving the employer with no actual choice in practice as to whether to implement the recommendations or not.
Making the most of HAWS

Some commentators have suggested that to avoid these disadvantages, an employer may consider changing its sickness absence policy allowing it to refer the employee to a private occupational health adviser of its choice after say 3 weeks of absence and thereby circumventing the referral to HAWS.

The introduction of HAWS is clearly intended to assist employers with sickness absence management by channelling funds available from the abolition of the Percentage Threshold Scheme into the Service and allowing a tax exemption of up to £500 a year per employee on medical treatments. Whether any of the concerns raised above are justified, remain to be seen and will depend on how well HAWS will work in practice with employers’ existing occupational health services.

Overall the changes are likely to be welcomed by most employers as a help to manage sickness absence and reduce potential abuse of the current system. We would recommend that employers consider now, before the changes take effect, how the new service may impact on their existing occupational health services and whether any changes to their sickness absence policy may be necessary.

The ebl miller rosenfalck Employment Team can advise you on how to manage short-term as well as long-term sickness absences within your business. We can also work with you to incorporate any potential changes to your sickness absence policy, including the right to withhold company sick pay if the employee refuses to engage with HAWS for instance.

The material contained in this guide is provided for general purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice. Appropriate legal advice should be sought for specific circumstances and before action is taken.

© July 2014

For further information and advice please contact:


Please contact:

Emmanuelle Ries - Partner

DD +44 (0)20 7553 9938