Fit notes: are they working?

Fit notes were introduced back in 2010 with the intention of making sickness absence simpler for employers. However, our helpline receives numerous calls regarding the issuing of fit notes and we have recently seen a worrying pattern developing. For example, following a suspicion of pending disciplinary action, an employee produces a note signing them off work under the loosely defined heading of ‘stress’. There is often a minimum of investigation by the doctor concerned as to the cause of the stress. This continues with little, if any, additional investigation/intervention while the employee hopes the issue at work fades. The word ‘stress’, work related or otherwise, seems to appear on fit notes far too frequently. Very little appears to happen following this diagnosis, and repeated notes seem to be issued merely at the behest of the patient. Sometimes, employees absent themselves from work and then produce a fit note that has been issued retrospectively by a doctor who obviously could have had no knowledge of the illness at its onset. This effectively prevents any action being taken by the employer. If the employer asks the doctor for a medical opinion on the fitness or otherwise of the employee to return to work – usually relating to an employee who is or has been off with a long-term illness and any restrictions the illness will necessitate on their return – these are often vague and indecisive. This means employers are required to make a judgement which they are not equipped for and risk an unfair dismissal claim. How to protect your business To make sure your business doesn’t get caught out, employers must have a robust sickness policy with back-to-work interviews, and possible use of the Bradford Factor Index. This may encourage employees to view sickness and absence from work as a serious issue. If you need help on this or any other employment issue, contact the Forum’s member helpline on 0845 130 1722. A copy of the Bradford Factor Index is also included in our practical Employment Guide.
The Forum of Private Business looks at ‘fit notes’ and how they are affecting employers.