In sickness and in health? - BUSINESS MAGAZINE

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Posted on 23 Aug 2010

Workplace absence remains a difficult and costly issue for employers. As part of the Government’s initiative to address this, it has devised the “Statement of fitness to work” or ‘fit note’ .  The old “sick note” regime will  end, and with it the idea that an employee is either fit to work or not.

From 6 April 2010 ‘fit notes’ will exploit the grey area in between by encouraging GPs to suggest what tasks an employee can  perform inspite of their sickness or injury.  Even so the option allowing the GP to sign the employee off as “not fit to work” remains.  The GP will have the option to specify that the employee ‘may be fit for work taking account of the following advice’.  Such advice might include reduced hours or tasks or a phased return to work.  There is also space on the fit note for the GP to make additional recommendations.

Importantly though, any  recommendations are not  binding on the employer who will still have to decide  whether the proposals can be accommodated.  The employer must still act reasonably when  considering any changes proposed (not forgetting the existing obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to make reasonable adjustments).

This is all about changing perception of sickness and capability.  Where an employee is suffering from stress,  the GP might recommend that they work shorter hours or fewer days in the short term.  Whilst this may not be an attractive proposition for a business that is already lean as a result of the recession, it must make sense  for the employee to carry out some  tasks than not having them at work at all.   

There is real potential for this system to work well in most cases.  With the emphasis on the idea that the employee may be fit to carry out some tasks, employers and employees will need to talk more and  sooner.  Hopefully, for many, this will prevent absence escalating into a long term problem.

However, the major potential drawback is over-reliance on GPs.   Whether or not they have the time or occupational health knowledge to make any meaningful suggestions  must be doubtful.  There remains  a risk that GPs will simply select “not fit to work”. If that happens, we will be back to where we are now.


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