Leading figures in occupational health are backing the ‘fit note’, launched last month, while awareness of its potential benefits is low among employers, surveys show.
In time, the fit note could radically change perceptions about work, ill-health and absence, according to Christina Butterworth, vice-president of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners. Butterworth told Occupational Health that the replacement for the Med3 sick note, which was a central recommendation in Dame Carol Black’s work and health review, could bring about profound changes in how GPs, managers and the profession work together.
“The fit note will, I think, start to get line managers and GPs out of that ‘all or nothing’ mindset; that people are either well or unable to work. It is a definite opportunity,” she said.
Although there had been some disappointment among the OH profession that a ‘refer to OH’ tick-box had not been included, the fit note will raise the profile of occupational health, and as GPs and employers become accustomed to it, it will lead to greater recognition that referral to OH is an option, particularly for complex cases.
“It is early days but it is clearly stating that line managers can get involved in the decision-making about someone returning to work. It will, too, help occupational health professionals to negotiate services with employers,” said Butterworth.
“And, for patients, it gives a format, an opportunity, through which they can begin to speak to line managers about adjustments to work, amended duties or a phased return.”
The manufacturers’ organisation EEF has been running a series of advice seminars for employers on the new note, along with issuing guidance and a toolkit.
Chief medical adviser professor Sayeed Khan, who was involved in the development of the note with government, said the seminars would be aimed at HR, line managers, health and safety and OH managers and would run in April and May.
“To improve sickness absence management we have to change the culture away from what people can’t do to what they can do,” he said. “The new system is a welcome change and, for those companies that embrace it, it will bring significant business benefits.”
Yet, according to HR consultancy Kronos, there is still some way to go. Its poll of more than 1,400 of its customers found that more than one-third were still unaware that it had been introduced: more than one-fifth were sceptical about whether it would reduce absence, while nearly four in 10 were worried that it would create more problems than it solved.