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New “Fit Notes” Guidance published

28th February 2010

From the 6th April 2010 the new “fit note” comes into operation. The DWP has published guidance on the operation of the new fit note.

The fit note will enable doctors to advise on various short term changes which are aimed at assisting the employee to return to work, at least in some capacity. The Department of Work and Pensions believe that this will save the UK economy some £240Million over ten years, through aiding the recovery and return of sick workers, and maintaining their skills.

In a press release Dame Carol Black, the National Director for Health and Work said that “The fit note is a hugely important development which means that GPs will be encouraged to think about their patient’s ability to work and provide more helpful information to patients to discuss with their employer.”

Having said this, there will be no obligation on the doctor to write anything apart from the fact that the person is not fit for work and how long the person will be “signed off” for – ie the same as applies in the current sick note. The new fit note will indicate that either the person is not fit for work, or that they might be fit for work under certain circumstances. There is no basic change in the main purpose of the note, and it will still be used as confirmation of illness if claiming sick pay. Like the current system, an individual will still self-certify their sickness absence in the first week of absence.

The TUC has produced guidelines on the fit notes for its representatives. In their guidance they raise a number of important points. In particular they note that doctors will not necessary know, at the beginning of the second week of sickness absence, enough about the person’s work, and be able to make an accurate judgement of what tasks a worker could perform before he/she is fully recovered.

In addition, the fit notes enable the doctor to make distinct types of recommendations:- a phased return to work, altered hours, amended duties, or workplace adaptations. Not all employers want an employee to return with amended duties (particularly is staff have very distinct and clearly defined job duties which are specialist and not shared with any other employee). Similarly may employers will not want altered hours for the employee, particularly if that would be disruptive to defined tasks that have to be done at a set time or times. The TUC, probably quite accurately, say that in most cases there will be nothing for the doctor to recommend and the employee will return to work once the doctor feels he or she is ready to do so.

In any event, it is standard practice for employers to seek some medical advice and opinion when an employee has been absent due to illness for a long time. This approach is unlikely to change, and we do not think that the new fit note will make a significant difference to this. In order for employers to obtain a real benefit through the fit note it will still have to give a doctor information about the work and duties of a particular employee, and details of any other tasks that the employee could do, or details of other changes to the workplace that may help a return to work. The employer does not have to accept the advice from the doctor on the fit note. The TUC note that many employers may be tempted to argue that the employee is ready to come back to work if the doctor has made some recommendation of some form of assisted return to work, and the employer may argue that the employee is no longer “signed off.” The government advice on this point makes it clear that this would be an incorrect interpretation by the employer. The employer is still required to carry out the recommended changes before the employee returns to work.

The new fit note does not alter the legal duties imposed by the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires employers to make reasonable adjustments regardless of what the doctor recommends in the fit note.

It will take some time for employers and employees to get used to the new fit notes. It must be remembered that it is not going to make a huge difference in most cases of sickness absences, and it will require employers to think of adjusting the workplace and hours earlier that they may have previously expected.    

If you need any further advice and help on the issues raised in this article please do not hesitate to contact us.

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