Employers: Fit note is not reducing absence rates

Research suggests firms remain underwhelmed

Fit notes are not helping to reduce sickness absence, according to employers.

Just one in ten respondents (11%) said the fit note had cut absence, newly released findings from the latest absence management survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development/Simplyhealth show.

The responses lend weight to a growing body of evidence that the fit note has not had the impact envisaged in Dame Carol Black’s report on the health of the workplace, which recommended their introduction.

Interviews with GPs carried on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) found that they were unwilling to act as a go-between for patients and employers and believe that employers should pay for occupational health services to access advice on health and work.

A larger survey of GPs carried out for the DWP found that almost half (48%) said the fit note had increased how often they recommended a return to work. However, 77% said they felt obliged to give sickness certificates for reasons that were not strictly medical and just 20% said there were good services locally to which they could refer patients for advice about returning to work.

Dame Carol’s latest report into sickness absence recognises that the vast majority of fit notes declare the patient unfit for work and recommends that people absent for more than four weeks should be referred to an independent assessment service carrying out functional capacity tests and providing occupational health advice.

The CIPD/Simplyhealth survey of 592 organisations also found that just under a third (31%) agreed that the fit note helps line managers to manage absence more effectively. The vast majority (87%) have used the fit note in their organisations, however its use was less common in smaller businesses of less than 50 employees (54%).

Dr Jill Miller, CIPD adviser, said the findings were "perhaps not surprising" given the culture change needed by GPs, employers and employees.

"GPs and employers need to work from the same page, promoting what is best for the individual employee’s health and well-being, but also what makes sense for the business," she said. "Employees too need to be more forthcoming and willing to enter these discussions. Policy makers, however, should not be discouraged as it may well take five years or so before the fit note is consistently used effectively and viewed more favourably by GPs, employers and employees, to support early and lasting returns to work."

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