New Fit Note could Lead to More Workplace Disputes

Sick note to fit note (image courtesy of DWP)A new ‘fit note’ to be introduced this April is likely to cause greater uncertainty for employers and employees, and may result in more disputes in the workplace. That’s the warning from Adams & Remers solicitors, following publication of the Government’s response to consultation on the fit note.

The fit note will replace the traditional sick note and aims to introduce a new ‘can do’ attitude towards medical statements. As well as the current ‘you are not fit for work’ option, the revised electronic statement will include a ‘you may be fit to work taking account of the following advice’ option. This option will allow the GP to suggest changes that might enable the employee to return to work, including a phased return, amended duties, altered hours and workplace adaptations.

It had been proposed that doctors would be able to state that an employee was ‘fit for work’, but this was abandoned in acknowledgement that it is not the doctor but the employer, in consultation with the employee, who is best placed to decide whether changes can be made.

Cathy Hoar, Associate at Adams & Remers comments:

“This means that, for example, employees who suffer with a bad back – one of the biggest causes of sickness absence – may still be able to work so long as they avoid bending and lifting while they recover.”

The new fit note system aims to reduce the number of working days lost to sickness, which currently stands at a staggering 172 million days a year. It could also be used to help those with long-term illnesses enter into employment, and to help reduce the number of people who claim incapacity benefit.

“But,” says Cathy Hoar, “there is widespread concern that the new system will lead to a fundamental shift in GPs’ responsibilities, as they will be expected to take on the role of occupational health adviser, rather than to act as the patient’s advocate. It remains to be seen whether doctors will tend to use the new fit note as intended, or stick with the ‘not fit for work’ option that they are used to.

“Some believe that the change will lead to disputes based on how the employer responds to the advice given by the GP in the fit note, particularly where the suggested changes might be costly or difficult to manage. Where an employee is disabled, there may also be disputes about whether the employer has complied with its duty to make reasonable adjustments under the current Disability Discrimination laws when implementing the doctor’s fit note advice.”

Cathy concludes:

“My advice to employers is to seek advice early on how to deal with these changes, to check whether employment contracts and policies will need updating, and to consult with staff who may be affected immediately by the new note. I would advise any employer to consider obtaining a full medical report from a GP or specialist and to carry out a risk assessment when an employee returns to work from long-term sickness.”

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