Telling doctors to issue fewer sick notes could impact employers

In recent months, staff shortages have impacted a number of organisations across the UK, leading Government Ministers to consider new initiatives to reduce the levels of economic inactivity. As part of this, the government is reportedly considering telling doctors to sign fewer people off work sick, as part of its goals to encourage people to remain in work and minimise the amount of long-term absence.

Statistics from the Labour Force Survey show that 2.32 million workers were signed off with long-term health conditions last summer, up from 1.95 million before the Covid pandemic in 2019. The government has stressed the benefits, particularly to employee’s mental health, of continuing at work, so is keen to focus on providing support to enable them to do so.

As such, medical professionals who are contacted by employees to obtain a fit note would be encouraged to look at all ways to help them to remain in work, rather than automatically agreeing to a period of absence. It’s suggested that signposting staff to support measures at the earliest opportunity would provide the most benefit to them and reduce the duration and frequency of their absence. In turn, this will boost organisation’s productivity and performance levels.

Where an employer is aware that an employee has an underlying health condition, or is struggling in any capacity at work, they should arrange a welfare meeting with them at the earliest opportunity. This informal discussion can be used to make sure the employee has all the support they need to be comfortable and successful in the workplace.

Reasonable adjustments can be agreed between the employee and employer directly. Or, where necessary, employers can refer the individual to occupational health, or to other medical professionals, for a comprehensive medical report. Doing so can provide an expert’s opinion on the employee’s fitness for work and the adjustments which can be implemented to remove any barriers they face.

This being said, there will be some employees who do require time away from the workplace to rest and recover. In such situations, refusing a sick note could be detrimental to their health. Whilst employers are able to require a fit note for absences lasting more than seven days, they may wish to explore alternative options if this can’t be provided. For example, agreeing a period of annual leave or temporary unpaid leave. In doing so, they should, however, be mindful that the longer the person is off, the more difficult it may be for them to return.

As a result, there should also be ongoing, regular discussions about the reasonable adjustments which can be implemented to assist the employee to remain in work on a long-term basis. Providing wider support, such as through Employee Assistance Programmes, mental health first aiders, flexible working arrangements and more, can also be of significant benefit to employees and help pro-actively reduce their absence levels.

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