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Are You Fit Enough to Work?

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From 6 April 2010, a doctor’s certificate, universally known as a "sick note" will be replaced by a Statement of Fitness for Work ("fit note") to be issued by General Practitioners ("GPs") only. This right may be extended to other healthcare practitioners in due course.

Sick notes, which have been used for the last 60 years, have been used by GPs to "sign off" an employee who was not fit enough to work. GPs were required to state the reason and the period of time of the "sign off". Fit notes are designed to be more proactive by encouraging and facilitating a return to work.

The fit note will have a larger space for GPs to insert details of the employee’s illness/condition. The GPs will also have to indicate whether the employee is "not fit for work" or alternatively "may be fit for work taking into account the following advice…".

The advice will perhaps include: a phased return to work; amended duties; altered hours; and workplace adaptations. There will be additional space for GPs to make further comments. The advice is intended to encourage communication between both a GP and their patient (the employee) and an employer and employee.

During the first six months of an employee’s illness/condition, a fit note will only be valid for a maximum of three months. After this time, GPs will have to see the patient/employee again and make an informed decision as to whether to issue a further fit note, on which the GP may provide further advice.

A fit note will not provide an option for GPs to indicate that an employee is "fit to work" - this idea was rejected by the Government on the basis that it is, and will remain, the employer’s responsibility to carry out a return to work assessment, to ensure that an employee is fit enough to work.

A further idea that the Government decided against was GPs being able to recommend that employees be referred to an employer’s occupational health advisor. The idea was rejected on the basis that one of the purposes of the fit note is that GPs suggest ways to facilitate a return to work. Referring employees to another healthcare practitioner for advice will only delay the return to work.

Fit notes will inevitably increase GPs workloads; however, they will provide employers with more information to enable them to be understanding of the employee’s illness/condition and be more aware of the changes they can implement, whether temporary or permanent, to facilitate a return to work.

Employers will no doubt feel it is another administrative burden to deal with in difficult times but they need to be wary of dismissals for ill – health absenteeism (permitted under the current law on unfair dismissal) which may be inconsistent with advice and recommendations made in a fit note.

In other words, the procedural hurdles to be overcome in order to fairly dismiss for long-term absence are arguably increased - or is it just the same headache with a different name?

Paul Grindley can be contacted on (0113) 399 3424 or paulgrindley@keeblehawson.co.uk.

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