Fit for Work: Early intervention cuts down on sick leave

A pilot project based in North Wales, UK, provided a coordinated, early intervention service to support workers who had recently taken sick leave or who were on the verge of doing so. Fit for Work’s objective was to ensure that employees could return to work and full productivity as quickly as possible.

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The Fit for Work project has helped people to manage their health problems and to stay in work.  ©RCS The Fit for Work project has helped people to manage their health problems and to stay in work. ©RCS

" The Fit for Work Service has had a powerful impact on the health and employability landscape in Wales, offering an innovative solution to workplace sickness absenteeism. The service has helped 1 600 employees with work-limiting health conditions, acting as the missing link between employees, businesses and family doctors and providing timely interventions to prevent a slide into worklessness. "

Ali Thomas, RCS Operational Director

The project – which received more than EUR 1 million from the ESF – sought to prevent people from sliding into longer-term sickness absence, which could have seen them move permanently from work to a life on benefits. To achieve its aims, Fit for Work deployed a team of dedicated case managers who coordinated support tailored to each individual’s needs.

A range of physiological and psychological interventions was made available to clients, as well as general advice, life coaching and employer mediation. The goal was to provide an holistic and integrated approach to managing both physical and mental health issues.

Direct support

In order to deliver its actions and raise awareness, the project built strong relationships with family doctors and other health care professionals, including therapists. Some 1 611 people received direct support through the project, exceeding the original target of 989. The project can point to a lasting impact on those it helped as more than 72 % of participants said that they were still in work 12 months after the using the intervention services.

Efforts were also made to help local SMEs maintain a healthy workforce. To that end, around 200 local companies took part in learning programmes which aimed to equip them with the skills required to manage the health and well-being of their staff more effectively. These included sessional workshops, delivered by leading experts in the field, designed to improve workplace productivity and reduce sickness absence. A total of 133 businesses took part in the workshops, with 75 % of participants stating that they have implemented changes to their professional practices as a result of this learning opportunity.

The project proved very effective in reducing the time individuals spent away from work due to illness. Those who were off sick while using Fit for Work services took, on average, 31.9 days to return to work, compared to an estimated national average of 42 days.

Building resilience

A key goal for the project was to deliver sustained, long-term outcomes and build a lasting legacy. The network of support developed through Fit for Work has therefore helped people to build resilience and independently manage their health problems, which in turn has helped them stay in work. In fact, 78 % of clients said that they were pro-actively managing their conditions 6-12 months on from the initial intervention. Efforts to raise local awareness of the project were a success, with 84 % of referrals to its services coming from family doctors.

The achievements of Fit for Work have left a positive legacy. The UK government has commissioned a new Fit for Work scheme to operate across Wales, England and Scotland, offering occupational health support via a telephone based service. The Welsh Government is seeking to complement this with a new in-work support service for employees from small to medium sized businesses, building positively on the achievements of Fit for Work and expanding the service to a wider geographical area.

Total investment and EU funding

Total investment for the project “Fit for Work North Wales” is EUR 1 637 404, of which the EU’s European Social Fund is contributing EUR 1 165 910 from the Operational Programme “West Wales and the Valleys” for the 2007 to 2013 programming period.

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