“Sicknotes are not necessarily gospel,” Burrows says. “They should be used as a form of guidance to help employers determine whether an employee is really unfit to work, rather than being seen as the final word. So if an employer feels that an employee’s absenteeism is getting out of hand, they are certainly not obliged to just accept it.”
According to Norwich Union Healthcare, doctors get 22 million requests for sicknotes every year, of which up to 9 million are believed to be suspicious. It also found that almost 3 million UK workers say they would consider asking their GP for a bogus sicknote.
Burrows suggests that this is an area where doctors could benefit from more training. “We have seen instances where GPs have admitted that they have issued sicknotes on demand, simply to avoid confrontation with a patient,” she says. “We have also heard about cases where employees have obtained fake sicknotes on the black market.”
“Even though the majority of doctors issue sicknotes in good faith, there may well be times when they give patients the benefit of the doubt too easily, particularly if the complaint is stress or depression. This costs businesses dear,” she adds.
Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that more than half of the employers surveyed have experienced an increase in stress-related illness among staff in the last year.
“Clearly, employers need to be sensitive and judge each case on its merits. Taking too heavy-handed or broad-brush an approach could prove disastrous for employee relations,” Burrows says.
“But where absenteeism is putting a strain on productivity, profitability or morale among other members of staff, the ability to challenge sicknotes could be a key weapon in their armoury to combat it.”
Tips for employers
To tackle absenteeism, Trowers and Hamlins suggests companies:
– ask for a second opinion. Employers should include in employment contracts the right to request employees see another doctor or occupational health physician
– make sure of the facts before challenging a sicknote, particularly if no second medical opinion has been sought. The employer would need to have sufficient evidence to show that the individual was, in fact, fit for work. They also need to bear in mind that there may be circumstances that prevent the employee from working, but not necessarily from other activities such as playing sport, shopping or going on holiday
– conduct return to work interviews, and/or ask employees to ring in and speak to their manager each day they are off sick, to dissuade them from ‘pulling sickies’. This could also help employers give genuinely ill employees better support to enable them to return to work more quickly
– consider limiting sick pay to statutory levels. After four days’ consecutive absence, this is paid for up to 28 weeks at a standard rate of £66.15 per week for those earning £79 per week or more before tax and national insurance.
Burrows says that unscrupulous employees will play the system if they know that they are not going to suffer financially.
“But the decision to limit sick pay should depend on the extent of the problem. It may not help the situation for employers to stick too closely to the letter of the law and, for instance, dock pay for people who just take a few days off for a cold,” she says.
Burrows suggests that the public sector practice of paying full pay for six months and half pay for another six could be a significant factor in the sector’s high absence rates.
Public sector employees took an average of 10.7 days off last year, compared with 7.8 days in the private sector, according to the CIPD. However, she says it is likely to be more difficult to change the status quo in the public sector because of the level of union protection.