New regime in relation to employee’s being off work due to sickness or illness

Employee who is ill or unable to do their work

As of the 6 April 2010 a new scheme has been introduced for employees who are off work illness or with an injury for 7 days of more – this scheme is called the fit note scheme and replaced the previous sick note scheme.

The Sick note

Under the previous scheme an employee would seek a letter from their doctor detailing to an employer the reasons for the employees absence and how long it is expected that they should be absent from work. This was done in the form of a handwritten note.

What were the problems with the previous system?

The previous system relied heavily on the individual doctor as there was no standardised procedure for the sick note it was simply a handwritten note which stated what was wrong with the employee and how long it is expected that they should be absent from work. There was no requirement for the doctor to specify if the employee would in fact be fit to undertake certain tasks of their job or return in a part-time capacity – it simply stated when they would be fully fit to return.

As a consequence of this many people were off work longer than they should have been as in actual fact they were able to perform some of their duties.

The Fit Note

Under the new fit note system a doctor will provide a patient who is absent from work for more than seven days on account of a medical condition with a computer generated statement.

What will be provided for in the computer generated statement?

The fit note should provide information on the condition suffered by the patient but it should also provide information on how their health condition might affect their ability to work and what adaptations or adjustments may have to be made to the workplace which could facilitate an earlier return to work.

Patient Not Fit for Work

When the doctor issues the medical statement they will be able to state if the patient is not fit for work or that he or she may be fit when taking into consideration the following advice.

If a patient would be fit for work when taking into consideration the advice of the doctor the doctor must provide additional information with which to support the statement.

A doctor is able to suggest the following adjustments which may facilitate an earlier return back to work:

  • A phased return back to work

  • Altered hours

  • Amended duties

  • Adaptations made to the workplace

A doctors suggestions will not however, be confined to the above as they will be able to make any suggestions which they see fit.

What is the maximum period of time a medical statement can last for?

A medical statement under the new scheme can last for a maximum period of three months when it is in the first six months of the condition occurring – this has been reduced from six months which was the maximum period under the previous scheme.

Can the doctor state that they wish to assess the patient’s medical condition after this time period?

If a doctor feels that they may need to assess a patient’s fitness to work once the initial statement has expired then indication of this will need to be made on the initial medical statement.

Will an employer be bound to accept the suggestions made by the doctor on the fit note?

An employer will not be bound to implement the suggestions for workplace changes made by the doctor on the fit note.

Whether an employer wishes to make any changes will be purely at the discretion of the employer and should be made in accordance with the agreement of the employee. This does not apply, however, if the employee is disabled as an employer will be under a duty to make reasonable changes under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 soon to be amended by the Equality Act 2010.

What happens if an employer refuses to accept the changes suggested by the doctor?

If an employer does not accept the changes suggested by the doctor then the employee will be treated as if they are not fit for work.

What should an employer do once they have made the workplace changes suggested by the doctor?

If an employer has made the workplace adjustments and amendments specified by the doctor they must ensure that these do not affect any existing legal obligations that all employers have to their employees. Of particular concern will be the duty to protect the Health and Safety of all employees – accordingly an employer should carry out a risk assessment to ensure that any workplace amendments do not carry an additional health and safety risk.

Will the new system improve the current problems faced by employers in relation to employee absences?

There are certain advantages seen with the new system in the fact that employees may be able to return to work earlier in some capacity and that the note will only last for three months whereas before an employee could rely on a sick note to be absent from work for a whole six months. Having only just come into force only time will tell if the new system will make an improvement.