Employees on sick leave for more than four weeks will be offered health advice under a new scheme designed by the Government to end "long-term sick benefits" and get people back to work.
The new Health and Work Service will be run by the private sector and does not entail changes to existing laws.
The service will be funded by scrapping the Statutory Sick Pay Percentage Threshold Scheme (PTS), which gives some compensation to employers facing high levels of sickness absence.
The Government argues the current system is "outdated" and "does nothing to promote" active management of sickness absences.
The new service could save employers up to £70 million a year and reduce sickness absence by up to 40 per cent according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
At present, employees off work for more than a month are entitled to statutory sick pay of almost £90 a week from their employers.
Under the new scheme, GPs and employers will be able to refer staff on long-term leave to occupational health specialists in a bid to identify the medical issues preventing them from returning to work. Patients will be given fitness advice and a time table to return to work. The scheme is not compulsory.
Minister of State for Work and Pensions Mike Penning denied the scheme would save the Government money by scrapping the PTS.
He insisted small businesses that cannot afford to pay for occupational health services would benefit the most from the scheme. The DWP said any financial loss to business from ending PTS "will more than likely be offset by a reduction in lost working days, earlier return to work and increased economic output".
A spokesperson said: "The new Health and Work Service is being set up to support people back into work as soon as they are able to - nobody will be forced to return before they are ready."
The Trades Union Congress said it welcomed "anything that helps workers recover from accidents or illness" quicker, but warned that "it would be wrong to exaggerate sickness levels in the UK".
TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady added: "We should be just as concerned with people working when they are too ill or infectious, especially when such things as zero-hours contracts mean that many get no sick pay."
According to DWP figures, almost one million employees were on sick leave for a month or more each year on average between October 2010 and September 2013, costing the economy £100 billion a year.Reuse content