Fit notes: quality conversations vital in tackling long-term absence

While recent research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that the fit note is so far yet to have a significant impact on absence rates, its research adviser, Dr Jill Miller, argues that its role in opening up conversations between staff and employers is crucial to the absence management process.

The fit note is prompting managers to discuss health issues with employees, a vital part of effective absence management, and the critical step in helping employees to either stay in or return to work. The CIPD’s 2011 Absence Management survey, produced in partnership with Simplyhealth, shows that half of employers believe that the fit note helps to open up a dialogue with employees.

We believe this is a positive outcome, but if employers are truly to reap the benefits of these conversations, they need to be having good quality discussions. It is critical that managers use these conversations as opportunities to understand fully why employees are absent from work and then offer the appropriate support to help the individual either stay in work or aid an effective return to work.

Our survey suggests that, overall, the fit note has yet to have a real impact on absence, with only one employer in 10 saying that it has helped to reduce absence levels in their organisation. But we 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, in terms of supporting early and lasting returns to work.

Effective absence management is essentially about good people management – having working relationships based on mutual trust and confidence, and managers who provide appropriate coaching and support where necessary. With prevention being better than cure, it is important that managers have a regular dialogue with staff to create an open and supportive culture and thus be able to spot early warning signs of health issues amongst their team, rather than just having one-off conversations when issues arise.

It is equally important that an employee feels comfortable enough to raise their concerns. For example, recent research by the CIPD and the mental health charity Mind found that there is still a disclosure issue around mental health problems.

HR and occupational health have a key role to play in working with managers to ensure that those with people management responsibility have the capability and confidence needed to manage absence effectively and to look at how employees can be supported, where possible, in line with the guidance provided by their GPs in a fit note. Providing the relevant training and ongoing support to managers is imperative, and managers need to keep up to date with what the organisation offers in terms of staff support, such as whether or not there is an employee assistance programme or a counselling service, as well as any wellbeing benefits on offer.

At the CIPD, we are keen to hear the Government’s response to the recommendations from the recent sickness absence review about how the current sickness absence system in the UK could be changed to help people who are off work sick to make supported and phased returns to work, reduce costs and contribute to economic growth. Research shows that work is generally good for our wellbeing and can have a therapeutic effect, helping to promote rehabilitation, and has a positive effect on physical and mental health and self-esteem.

Employers can find out how the sickness absence review will effect their business by registering for Personnel Today’s free webcast on the subject.