Occupational physicians to contact employees after 4 weeks of sick leave

Occupational physicians to contact employees after 4 weeks of sick leave
Minister of Economy and Work Pierre-Yves Dermagne. Credit: Belga / Hatim Kaghat

As of Monday 3 October, sick workers will be approached by the occupational physician much faster. The government's reasoning: the sooner counselling is provided, the better the chances of getting back to work will be.

Since 1 October, the new reintegration process for long-term sick workers in companies has officially been a reality. Employment Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne, of the francophone Socialist Party (PS), believes the initiative should help to reduce the huge number of long-term sick people in Belgium.

There is no transition period; the new policy takes effect immediately.

The biggest change

The occupational physician will contact the sick employee after only four weeks' absence.

"This will be a feat for us, but we are ready for it," said Lode Godderis, professor of occupational medicine (KU Leuven) and CEO of the External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work (Idewe).

He called the policy an important step in the right direction. "Until recently, we had to wait until the employee contacted us themself or was referred by the employer." The latter can only be done after four months.

The longer away from work, the harder the return

The labour doctor's offer is initially completely non-committal. "We mainly want to make workers think about a possible return. Are they already doing something about it? What do they still hope to be able to do? That way we can already give some direction," said Godderis.

Dermagne's office also wants, above all, a faster dialogue between employer and employee. Research shows that the longer an employee is at home, the more difficult the return is. Either way, employers will have to take more account of their absent employees in the future, the Dermagne.

"Employees can also ask for a reintegration process and adapted work within the company themselves from their first day of illness," said spokesperson Laurens Teerlinck. "Companies will also have to take maximum account of the employment doctor's recommendations, and if it is really not possible to provide adapted work, they will have to argue that much more clearly."

To this end, the new law is even more strongly linked to anti-discrimination legislation. According to the PS minister, the tightness of the labour market makes it all the more important to give everyone as many opportunities as possible.

Separated from dismissal

The Court of Audit already dismissed the approach to the long-term sick in the past. Among other things, it found that a large proportion of the reintegration routes were initiated through companies "with a view to obtaining a dismissal due to medical force majeure".

Trade unions had long complained that it was mainly a means to make it easier to put workers on the street. Conversely, such a medical dismissal gave the employee easier access to unemployment benefits.

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In the new law, the reintegration processes are completely separated from medical dismissal. Godderis also welcomed this saying "Reintegration now focuses solely on reintegration".

Incidentally, on Tuesday, the federal parliament will also discuss the abolition of the sick note for one day's absence. It is a matter of time before that measure, too, takes effect.

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