This warning comes on the day of the introduction of the new style fit notes which will replace the traditional sick note in a bid to help workers achieve an earlier return to work. Over a third (35%) of employers are still unaware that the fit note is to be introduced, according to a new survey. A further 64% said they had not received any guidance so far on how to manage the introduction of the fit note.
The new electronic statement will include a ‘may be fit for work’ option for doctors if they think that their patient’s health condition may allow them to work with suitable support from their employer.
This option will allow the GP to suggest changes that might help the employee to return to work, including a phased return, amended duties, altered hours and workplace adaptations. However it is the employer, in consultation with the employee, who makes the decision whether to accommodate any changes.
It had been proposed that doctors would be able to state that an employee was ‘fit for work’, but this was abandoned in acknowledgement that doctors do not have sufficient knowledge of individual roles, and any associated risks, to make this assessment.
Sian Davies, partner at Capital Law, said: “The new system aims to reduce the number of working days lost to sickness, which currently stands at a staggering 172 million days a year. It could also be used to help those with long-term illnesses enter into employment, and to help reduce the number of people who claim incapacity benefit. For instance, employees who suffer with a bad back – one of the biggest causes of sickness absence – might still be able to work if they avoid bending and lifting while they recover.
“However, there is concern that the new system will lead to a fundamental shift in GPs’ responsibilities, as they will be expected to take on the role of occupational health adviser. It will be interesting to see whether doctors will use the new fit note as intended, or stick with the trusty ‘not fit for work’ option that they are used to.”
Sian pointed out that the change could potentially lead to disputes based on how employers respond to any advice given by GPs, particularly where suggested changes might be costly or have difficult practical implications. She concluded:
“When an employee returns to work from long-term sickness I would advise any employer to consider obtaining a full medical report from a GP or Occupational Health specialist and to carry out a thorough risk assessment.”