Fit-notes will cause arguments about ‘suitable work’ definition

The government’s new fit note strategy will “inevitably” lead to disputes between employers and staff about what constitutes suitable work following a period of sickness absence, HR chiefs have warned.

Under the new fit note system, which comes into effect in April, GPs will not be asked to determine whether a worker is 100% fit to return to work. Instead, the onus will be fully on employers to conclude what a patient who is declared ‘may be fit for some work’ could or could not do at work.

But Linda Maughan, HR director at Middlesbrough Council, told Personnel Today: “If the employer is left to determine suitable work with only a ‘fit for some work note’ and a diagnosis, then those without Occupational Health advice may struggle and there will inevitably be disputes about what constitutes suitable work.”

She added: “If GPs were going to give an idea of activities that could be undertaken, or those which should be avoided, then this could be very helpful,” she said

The fit note asks doctors to list whether the employee would benefit from a phased return to work, altered hours, amended duties or workplace adaptations. However, GPs are not required to go into detail about exactly what a worker could do related to their original job role.

Gillian Hibberd, corporate HR director at Buckinghamshire County Council, said the intention for employers to take responsibility for rehabilitating wokrers was good, but added: “I am concerned that the changes will create more chaos. I can see a situation where employees will object to what is asked of them by their employers.”

Stephen Moir, corporate people director at Cambridgeshire County Council, warned that the culture change the new system will require from GPs cannot be underestimated. “I’d want some assurances about the actions to be taken to support implementation, otherwise the changes could easily lose credibility quickly,” he said.

This point was taken up by Amanda Harris, head of HR at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, who said GPs would need additional training. “It is unclear how the GP could feel confident making decisions about partial fitness to return to work without a detailed understanding of what the employee’s role entails,” she warned.

Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – which is currently conducting research with the British Occupational Health Research Foundation into the capability of line managers in managing the return to work of long-term absentees – was more positive about the changes.

“It’s not going to be a sudden process, but, over a period of years, we expect this to lead to more people returning to work than would have done under the previous system,” he said. “It will provide a framework to encourage GPs to have a conversation about a phased return to work, prompting the employee to speak to their employer.”

Mary Canavan, HR director at the British Library, said employers should already be stepping in when employees have been off sick for a period of time, using attendance policies, employee assistance programmes and Occupational Health to identify how the employee may be assisted and supported back into work.

“This dovetails in with how employers assess reasonable adjustment and DDA requirements,” she added.

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