The Office for National Statistics has reported the highest rate of sickness absence in over a decade and employers can therefore expect to receive more fit notes from employees. There are some important changes being introduced to streamline the process for issuing and certifying fit notes which employers need to be aware of and consider.
These changes are in response to the Government’s pledge to reduce ill health related job losses, as set out in their “Health is Everyone’s Business” consultation process.
What is a fit note, and what can it be used for?
A ‘fit note’ obtained from a GP or hospital doctor provides evidence to an employer of an employee’s absence due to sickness. For statutory sick pay purposes, employees must provide evidence of their incapacity after seven consecutive days’ absence.
For more information around fit notes, you can view the whole collection of informational articles on the .GOV webpage here – Fit note – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Following a health assessment, a fit note may specify either that:
- the employee is ‘not fit for work’, meaning they may not work for the stated period of time; or
- the employee ‘may be fit for work’, which means that the employee’s condition does not necessarily stop them from returning to work. In this case the doctor has the option of suggesting amendments which would assist a return to work such as a phased return, amended duties, altered hours or workplace adaptions. It is good practice for employers to discuss any comments in a fit note with the employee, particularly any suggestions made regarding changes to the role. If an employer is unable to accommodate suggested changes, the fit note is treated as if it says ‘not fit for work’ – a new fit note is not required.
If a doctor assesses an individual is ‘fit for work’ they will not be issued with a fit note.
A fit note is classed as advice and is not legally binding on employers, although there should always be a good reason for not complying with one. If the employee has a disability, an obligation to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ may arise, failure of which may entitle the employee to bring a discrimination claim.
1 July 2022: more healthcare professionals can issue fit notes
At present, only doctors can provide fit notes. However, from 1 July 2022, the following healthcare professionals will also be able to issue and certify fit notes:
- Occupational therapists
This change comes after significant pressure on GPs as they tackle appointment backlogs caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is expected to free up millions of appointments for those needing access to GP services, allowing people to get the right support more quickly.
6 April 2022: digital fit notes
A fit note no longer needs to be ‘signed in ink’ by the person issuing it.
From 6 April 2022, a fit note can be issued and received digitally, with the name of the issuer stated within the fit note. While digital fit notes are being rolled out, ‘signed in ink’ fit notes remain valid until further notice.
A fit note was not previously valid unless signed by a doctor, so this is a significant change. We understand that the intention is to move to a fully digital form in the future and that these will simply state the name and title of the person issuing the fit note.
What do these changes mean for employers?
Employers may want to highlight these new rules to anyone who is responsible for receiving and processing fit notes in their organisation, ensuring that all managers are up to date on the amended validity requirements.