GPs could be told to issue fewer sick notes

Feb 24, 2023 | Blog, HR, Legal Updates

It’s been reported by The Telegraph that GPs could be told to issue fewer sick notes under government plans to boost Britain’s economy.

Currently, an idea that could be considered as part of the spring budget in March, if implemented, it could see the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) advising medical and healthcare professionals not to sign employees off work.

The suggestion would instead be to encourage medical professionals to support employees to remain at work.

When asked, a spokesperson from DWP told People Management “We’re considering a range of factors to address inactivity, and further details on this will be set out in due course. We wouldn’t comment on speculation”.

Interestingly, the Society of Occupational Medicine, confirms that one-third of people are signed off work for four weeks or longer, by which time 20 % will never return to work. Once people are signed off for six months, 80% of them will never return to work.

So although a fit note doesn’t have to mean that the person is signed off and the absence will become long-term, the longer the fit note is in place, the less likely it is for the person to be returning to work.

There are also reports that the UK government is planning to overhaul sickness and disability benefit legislation in a further effort to get people back into work. By overhaul, I’m taking that to mean “reduce payments” or “make it far more onerous to get support”.

Fewer fit notes – does that mean positive news for employers?

Not really, in my view! I think it could give employers a whole new host of problems to deal with, including a situation where employees are attending work when they’re really not fit to be there.

I’m also confused by this proposal because surely the fit note already has an option built-in to allow the medical professional to suggest amendments to enable the person to stay in work. In my experience though, I can count on one hand the number of fit notes I’ve seen that say “may be fit for work”

Perhaps therefore the proposal, instead of saying that GPs could be told to issue fewer sick notes, they should be to encourage and support medical professionals to discuss possible workplace adjustments so they can reasonably tick the “may be fit for work” option instead of defaulting to the “is not fit for work” option.

I also think there is a potential can of worms here. What happens if an employee says they’re not fit for work but they “can’t” get a fit note to that effect? This then falls to the employer to ascertain whether or not the employee is fit for work. The risk being of course that the employer is potentially liable for disability discrimination or unfair dismissal claims if they don’t take any steps to establish if the employee is truly fit for work or not.

If you have issues with sickness absence in your business, get in touch today for some pragmatic advice and guidance.