How to deal with a sick employee who wants to return to work

Employers can sometimes find themselves in a situation where an employee is signed off on sickness absence, covered by a GP’s fit note, but the employee wants to come back to work.

This can be a tricky scenario because on the one hand, you have a duty of care towards your employees in that you must ensure their health and safety whilst at work, but on the other, your employee may be eager to come back to work. This is likely to be because the employee is only receiving statutory sick pay instead of their normal pay.

It is important to remember that fit notes from a medical professional are not to be read as a concrete instruction for you not to allow the employee into the workplace. Fit notes represent a GP’s advice and are not binding on employers.

Where an employee has a fit note which says that the employee ‘is not fit for work’, but still wants to come back, you should ideally encourage the employee to return to their GP for a new fit note which identifies certain considerations for a return. The current format of the fit note allows for a GP to confirm the employee “may be fit” for work if, for example, they work lesser hours for a period of time.

Alternatively, you could have a discussion with the employee akin to that which the employee would have with their doctor (obviously without any medical perspective) regarding adjustments, if any, that could be made to the role to enable a return before their fit note expires whilst still considering their health and safety.

If a new fit note is provided by the employee which suggests some changes, the employer should then discuss with the employee whether the suggestions can be accommodated. There is no obligation on the employer to accept the GP’s suggestions. However, employers should consider them carefully in conjunction with the employee to see if an agreement can be reached on what the employee is to do.

If you remain doubtful that the employee is ready to return to work even after this extra discussion has taken place, an occupational health assessment may be appropriate to provide you with more specific advice on what adaptations could be made to the role. An occupational health assessment is likely to place more focus than a GP’s fit note on matching what is required of the employee at work and what their current abilities are.

Ultimately, you must remember your duty of care to the employee. Your legitimate concerns about the employee’s health and safety may well defeat an employee’s desire to return to work early.

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