Fit for purpose - Government changes to fit notes

Following the recent government announcement to provide more healthcare professionals with powers to certify sickness absence, Kevin Poulter, Employment Partner at Freeths LLP explains how this new development will affect employers.

The amended legislation, which came into effect across the UK on 1 July 2022, has extended the list of healthcare professionals who are able to provide a statement for fitness to work, commonly known as fit notes. As well as GPs, this now includes nurses, occupational therapists, pharmacists and physiotherapists. The announcement comes after April's introduction of digital certifying of fit notes and will aim to simplify the process and ease pressure on GPs, reduce bureaucracy and speed up the system. 

What impact will this have on employers?

Access to a GP is increasingly difficult. This has been already recognised by employers, many of which have started to provide access to virtual GPs as part of the wellbeing and benefits packages provided to employees.

The extension to a wider group of healthcare providers should make access to fit notes easier. Since their introduction, fit notes were intended to provide employers with constructive information and guidance as to how an employee may be able to continue to work through a period of sickness or to facilitate a return to work, rather than a simple fit/unfit diagnosis.

Sadly, possibly due to lack of training, time or awareness, fit notes have not been as useful or beneficial as initially expected and a binary response of fit/unfit is still common. Worse still, a lack of information about symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis makes it very difficult for employers to respond proactively.

It is also common for fit notes to be issued for four weeks as a matter of course, even up to three months from the first notification. By providing greater access to healthcare professionals, it is hopefully the case that more time can be spent by healthcare experts consulting employees, considering practical and constructive guidance to support in employee in or returning to work. The opportunity for more frequent reviews should be seen as a positive step, but only if it is accompanied by proper training, transparency and support.

What impact will the amendment have on attendance in the workplace and what are the challenges?

There is unlikely to be any immediate change in attendance and presenteeism at work, however it is hoped that the proper implementation of training for the wider group of healthcare workers, regularity of review and an emphasis on constructive guidance to support a return to work will have a positive impact on attendance, especially reducing medium to long-term employee absence.

There may be some scepticism amongst employers about the quality of diagnosis and review of duties being provided by those who are not GPs. Like any change, it will take some time to get used to. If more time can be spent in consultation with employees, especially specialist healthcare workers, this will hopefully be remedied.

It may also be the case that employers will rely on its own occupational health advice where any fit note supported guidance is unreasonable or to be challenged. 

Kevin Poulter is a partner in the employment team at Freeths.

For further information and employment advice, contact our expert Employment team.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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