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Fit For Work pilot: the scheme makes sense, but let's hope it isn't another Atos

I’m not sure I trust this Government to run the scheme in a sensible and sensitive manner given the way some reforms have been conducted so far

Get fit or get fired. Is that what the Government is saying with its “Fit For Work” scheme?

I’m a little worried that it might be. 

Here’s the idea. When someone’s been off sick for a while an agency will take over the job of liaising between sick employee and employer, relieving GPs from a job that they aren’t really suited for doing. 

It will look at what is preventing people from going to work, and attempt to find solutions. That could involve physiotherapy, for example, where people are suffering from injuries. Or providing an occupational therapist - they can help with things such as workspace ergonomics which can be a boon in cases of repetitive strain injury. 

If sounds like a good idea. Rotting away on sick leave is not good for anyone; it’s bad for the economy, the Government, the employer, and especially the employee. 

The Beeb reports on some of the results of the pilot here.

But there will also be a stick: fail to co-operate and you could face disciplinary action. 

Here’s why I’m concerned. 

When I was released from hospital after a road accident I was advised not to consider starting back to work for a month and then to take it very gently. 

In the end I started filing articles for the Independent after two weeks. I had no intention of going on long term sick. I was bored, fed up of being a “patient” and, frankly, it felt good to be doing something again. Working was also helpful in dealing with the psychological trauma I was struggling with. 

So I can see how such a scheme could be very beneficial. 

What helped me most, however, was having a sympathetic and flexible employer. I was able to gradually pick up the pace over time. The Independent was amenable to me working from home, which has been a big help because my mobility was, and is, seriously impaired. Hopefully, everyone has benefitted this arrangement. 

What worries me a bit about what might emerge from the Fit For Work pilot (details are still being worked on) is whether all employers will be as willing to be as enlightened as mine has been. The BBC, for example, has quoted a GP as saying at least 1 in 4 long term sickness cases are caused by poor relationships at work. 

Then there is the funding, and whether it will be sufficient. And if you add in targets - that’s when I start to get really cynical. 

Some minister wants to be able to say “look look we’ve got XX hundred thousand people back to work and saved YY millions as a result”. All of a sudden the agency’s work becomes about a target. The individuals affected don’t count. We gotta hit those numbers! 

Given the Government’s rhetoric about “strivers” and “shirkers” you can see why I’m little nervous about where this one is going. 

Look, I’m not knocking the principle. In general the idea is a good one. Helping people who have been ill to get back to work ought to be an all round win. 

The trouble is, I’m not sure I trust this Government to run the scheme in a sensible, and sensitive manner given the way some of its reforms have been conducted so far. 

Remember Atos Healthcare and those fitness for work tests? And the 51-year-old cancer suffer who was told she was fine and had her benefits cut. She died just a few weeks after the crass decision was reversed.

You can read about it, and other cases, here.

It explains where my scepticism comes from.