Your role in the upgraded government reintegration programme - AG Employee Benefits
Make the reintegration programme a success

Published on 23/02/2022

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Will the upgraded government reintegration programme be a success?

Nearly half a million Belgians have been off on extended incapacity leave. To encourage their return to the labour market, the government launched its reintegration programme at the end of 2016. As it has had very little impact, new measures - and sanctions - have since been introduced. Wondering if AG's Return To Work assistance programme is still relevant given this new development? Read on to find out more!

Useful, but rather ineffective
The figures from the Belgian Court of Audit (Long-term sickness – Back-to-work measures- December 2021) are very clear: on average, 2% of employees on long-term sick leave have participated in a reintegration programme, and only one out of three have returned to the labour market after seven quarters. In short, nowhere near what's needed to slow down the growing numbers (an increase of 5.5% per year). The government measures have clearly missed the mark.

Why are the government measures so ineffective?
There are three reasons why the measures have fallen short of their target: 

  • First and foremost, the reintegration assistance is offered too late.
    And that is the number one reason cited by the Belgian Court of Audit. The earlier a reintegration programme is started, the higher the likelihood the employee will return to work, especially in cases where sick leave was taken for a stress-related mental health condition.
     
  • Reintegration assistance is only offered if initiated by one of the parties
    Both the employee and the employer must see the possibility of returning to work in a positive light. For example, the employee may decide not to participate in such a programme, or the employer may refuse to offer suitable work (although the refusal must be justified with valid reasons). The problem, according to the Belgian Court of Audit, is that the approach is still far too optional.

  • The number of "stress-related mental illnesses": according to the Socialist group of Sickness Funds (Research Report-Burnout-Disability-2021), burnout syndrome is diagnosed too late, and antidepressants are prescribed too readily.

A string of new measures
The government not only wants reintegration assistance to start faster, it also wants to hold all parties more accountable by introducing binding rules and sanctions (sanctions effective as of 2023).

The table below recaps the key measures that are important for both employees and employers:

​Who?
​What?
​Sanction/Financial Impact
​Employees
  • Within eight weeks of receiving their medical certificate from the Sickness Fund, employees on sick leave must fill out the "quick-scan" questionnaire. The Sickness Fund can then use this information to assign each employee to a category based on how able s/he is to return to work: spontaneously, after medical treatment, after rehabilitation/training, or not at all. This way, the reintegration assistance can be started sooner.

  • ​If a physician refers the employee to the Sickness Fund's reintegration coordinator, the likelihood of getting a response is much higher.
​Employees who fail to respond* risk losing 2.5% of their incapacity benefits.

*Currently, many questionnaires never come back filled in. The figure is as high as 40% among members of the Christian, Independent, Liberal and Neutral groups of Sickness Funds. And roughly 20% for members of the Socialist group of Sickness funds.



​Employers
  • The procedure to fire an employee on medical grounds will be entirely separate from the assistance programme. Employers will have to wait a full nine months before they can start such a procedure. This way, the reintegration assistance can be spread out over a longer period of time.

  • Companies with big numbers of long-term sick leave cases will have to set aside 2.5% of the wage bill in a prevention fund for three months. Only employees under the age of 55 with at least three years of service at the company will be eligible.
​For three months 2.5% of the wage bill 


To support this "upgraded" reintegration policy, the government plans to recruit 60 reintegration coordinators at the Sickness Fund level by year-end 2023.

The power of our Return-To-Work programme
It's abundantly clear that the previous government reintegration programme was inadequate. The new plans are more ambitious, and the recruitment of 60 coordinators is already a step in the right direction. At the same time, this new approach has yet to prove its effectiveness. Meanwhile, the huge and ever-rising number of long-term sick leave cases has a significant social and economic impact. All the more reason to offer supplementary initiatives with a proven track record, such as our Return To Work assistance: no less than 72% of the employees who started a programme with one of our care partners are back at work after only six months.

What's the secret to our high success rate? Early intervention is key, and return-to-work assistance needs to be part of your HR policy and tailored to the specific needs of the individual, especially in cases of burnout. And that is the strength of AG's approach, plus employers can choose from among the four specialised care providers that we have carefully selected. A rapid declaration of incapacity for work, even if the waiting period has not yet expired, helps to make this approach even more efficient.

The success of Return To Work lies in its proactive and quick response and individually-tailored support for each employee who voluntarily participates in the programme, delivered via our network of specialised care providers. 


Our approach is complementary to the government measures, and our role remains very important in the fight against long-term sick leave cases, especially when the cause is burnout syndrome. 

In addition, scientific research shows that a comprehensive, sustainable policy with preventive​​ as well as curative measures contributes to better workplace wellbeing and has a positive effect on long-term absenteeism.

Read more about Return To Work