137.3 million. That’s the number of working days UK businesses lost to sick note or injury in 2016. The government recognised the challenge that managing long term absenteeism posed to businesses. And, in 2013, they replaced sick notes with fit notes to help employers reduce sickness absence costs and minimise the disruption caused by employees being off sick unnecessarily.
However, several years on, the fit note is plagued by misconceptions. This article clears up the myths so you can make best use of the system for your business.
Myth 1 – Employees Can Get a Fit Note from Day One of Being Ill
Contrary to popular opinion, employees are not able to obtain a fit note until they have been absent from work for seven calendar days. Demonstrating they are ill or injured for this initial period should be covered by a self-certification form.
Myth 2 – Sick Note Can Carry a Cost
Fit notes are issued free of charge on the NHS by a GP. However, if an employer requests medical evidence that an employee is unfit to work before they have been absent for seven consecutive days, this will incur a cost. Which is where the confusion can come about. In this case, it is up to employers to foot the bill.
Myth 3 – Employees Can Only Return to Work Once Completely Fit
In most cases, people don’t need to be completely fit to return to work. Fit notes are issued on the premise that appropriate work is usually good for people’s physical and mental well-being. Which means employers can support recovery by giving people alternative work to do. This should be appropriate and within the limits that the individual’s health condition imposes.
Myth 4 – Fit Notes Are Specific to the Individual’s Job
Fit notes tell you whether an employee’s doctor considers them to be fit for work in general and is not in reference to the individual’s specific job. This gives you the option to discuss alternative work with your employee that could be outside their usual remit. A temporary change to duties can often support people in returning to work.
Myth 5 – Fit Notes Are Legally Enforceable
The advice contained in a fit note is for the employee and is not binding on the company. It is ultimately down to you as the employer to decide how to act on the advice, taking into account your wider legal obligations.
If the fit note contains work adjustment suggestions you are unable to implement you can explain this to your employee and behave as if the fit note had said the employee is not fit to work. Alternatively, request that your employee returns to the doctor for alternative suggestions.
Consider involving a HR consultant to navigate your legal responsibilities and bring in specialist occupational health expertise if required.
Myth 6 – Only a Fit Note Will Do
It’s up to you what form of evidence you are prepared to accept from your employees regarding their long-term sickness absence. You can choose to accept other proof, like a hospital letter detailing in-patient dates or a letter from chiropractor, if you choose to. Judge each piece of evidence on its own merits and, if in doubt, request the employee provides a fit note if you feel their evidence is insufficient.
Myth 7 – Employers Can Revoke Sick Pay if a Sick Note is Not Provided
This myth is half true, half false. If an employee fails to provide a fit note you cannot withhold statutory sick pay (SSP) even if the fit note is not received on day eight of their absence. This is because the employee may have been too ill to get to the doctor or they have been unable to secure an appointment.
However, if you offer sick pay over SSP, you are entitled to apply your own rules to this remuneration element. You can choose to revoke payment from day eight onwards until evidence is provided and then backdate the payment or even fail to pay it at all if evidence is not provided. Ensure your rules are applied fairly, consistently and non-discriminatorily to keep your feet legally dry.
Myth 8 – Sick Notes Can Roll on Forever
A sick note will have a specified end date. If the employee believes they are still not well enough to return to work or full duties, they can apply to their doctor to extend the sick note.
To prevent this from continuing indefinitely, if your employee has been off work sick for four weeks, you can make a referral to the government’s Occupational Health Service. The Fit for Work assessment provides the employee with advice on interventions and steps to help them return to work. Subject to the employee’s consent, the Return to Work Plan will be shared with you and the employee’s GP.