'Job broker' scheme to help sick stay in work

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people who risk losing their jobs after falling sick, becoming injured or over-stressed will receive help through a radical government programme to reduce the £7bn cost of long-term disability benefits.

Thousands of people who risk losing their jobs after falling sick, becoming injured or over-stressed will receive help through a radical government programme to reduce the £7bn cost of long-term disability benefits.

The scheme, to be announced this week, will involve "job brokers" intervening with employers to persuade them not to sack staff who could continue to work after a course of treatment, adaptations to their workplace or a reshaping of their job. Ministers believe the "prevention strategy" could help to reduce the huge cost of long-term sickness to business and the taxpayer by keeping thousands of people in work.

A government source said: "People with illnesses are usually desperate to keep their jobs because they know it is the key to normal life. We are responding to a human need by trying to avoid people being fired and spending a life on benefits."

Sickness cost business £10.7bn last year in statutory sick pay and wages, according to a survey by the Confederation of British Industry. Another £25bn was spent by the Department of Social Security on sickness and disability benefits, of which incapacity benefit cost about £6.8bn in payments to 1.6 million claimants.

Across the country, about one million people are off sick each week. Most are off for just a day. But each week, 17,000 people reach their sixth week of absence because they are suffering from a serious illness, back or muscle problem, or mental illness. Six weeks is seen as the "critical" time for intervention under the new £12m job retention and rehabilitation scheme, which will come under the banner of the Government's New Deal for Disabled People.

At six weeks, people run a serious risk of being dismissed by an employer who cannot afford to cover for long-term absence. Statistically, it is also the point after which someone is more likely to remain off sick permanently than return to work.

Under the scheme, rehabilitation clinics and employment specialists from the private sector and NHS trusts will compete to run a range of pilot schemes.

Intervention in the officeenvironment will include adaptations such as curved keyboards, bigger computer screens, ground-floor desks or flexible hours to allow for visits to a clinic or retraining. Gadgets could be as simple as electronic pagers to act as fire alarms for deaf people.

With government grants available for special equipment, employers could find it makes more sense to retain a loyal member of staff than to spend thousands of pounds trying to find a replacement.

One pilot scheme will focus on people with psychiatric problems, who risk deteriorating into a spiral of decline if they are sacked. Another pilot scheme will be a control group in which people are offered no help at all for a year to gauge the success of the rest of the scheme.

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