From April 6 doctors will be able to advise if a patient may be fit for work and offer advice on the effects of their health condition. The fit note has been designed to minimise long-term absence by letting the employer know what tasks staff would be capable of doing in the workplace to speed up their return.
For example, an employee with a mobility problem could return to work if their job were adapted so they did not have to stand up. Other temporary changes could include reduced working hours or amended duties.
The change will bring significant benefits for companies. A survey by manufacturers organisation EEF found 45% of respondents believed the sick-note system hampers a return to work. Meanwhile, in the wider economy the cost of sickness absence is vast, at £100bn a year. DWP estimates the fit note will benefit the economy to the tune of £240m over the next decade.
Stephen Bevan, MD of the Work Foundation, says: "The system as it stands focuses almost entirely on incapacity rather than capacity and the mistaken belief that you have to be 100% fit before returning to work. Fit notes will jolt the system into recognising that returning to work is a legitimate clinical outcome."
But there are still some issues to iron out. Research published by Occupational Medicine journal in December found two-thirds of GPs had not received any training in sickness certification, resulting in the amount of time given off for the same illness varying considerably. With the new fit note certification being even more complex, there is a need for GPs to receive considerable training.
Social security rules state there are times when doctors can legally refrain from giving a true diagnosis, for example if they feel it may harm their patient if the reason were disclosed to their employer.
And Brian Rogers of law firm Lewis Hymanson Small points to a survey of 440 Nottinghamshire GPs that found few took any responsibility for managing work issues of patients with back issues a problem in the food industry where people may lift boxes or be on their feet all day. These GPs felt fit notes instead of sick notes may be unrealistic.
So while fit notes are a definite step forward, employers need to be confident in what doctors tell them and GPs need to believe employers will not react negatively if given the true reason for staff absence.
The DWP has just released guidance on the fit note system. For details go to www.dwp.gov.uk/fitnote.
Siân Harrington is editor of Human Resources magazine.