Crisis in sicknote system will force major overhaul

HR
and OH professionals should take the lead as GPs reject sicknote role

Exclusive
new research by Personnel Today reveals the shocking state of the sicknote
system in the UK, and the way it is failing to protect employers from an
epidemic of malingerers.

This
follows other Personnel Today research released last week, which showed a
growing number of absence cases are caused by stress at a cost of £1.24bn a
year.

The
Government plans to revamp the sicknote system and has proposed that
occupational health professionals take charge of judging fitness for work.
Personnel Today and Doctor magazine will lobby the Government, using our latest
findings to help inform the process.

The
research – which surveyed more than 300 doctors – reveals that more than 80 per
cent of them do not want to be responsible for writing sicknotes, while 77 per
cent admit they issue sick- notes too easily.

Just
under 1,000 HR professionals also took part in the sicknote survey, and 80 per
cent of them say they are now seeing more staff signed off sick – with 30 per
cent saying the numbers have greatly increased in the past year.

The
research, launched in response to readers’ concerns over the current system,
reveals that both HR and medical professionals want change.

Fifty-four
per cent of doctors and 39 per cent of HR professionals would like to see specialised
occupational health centres established, while 49 per cent of doctors and 8 per
cent of HR staff believe that in-house certification is the answer.

The
views of many doctors are summed up by Dr George Moncrieff, a GP at the
Bicester Health Centre in Oxfordshire.

“Medical
certificates are a complete and utter waste of our professional time,” he said.
“They should be removed from our terms and conditions. Frankly, I have
absolutely no interest whatsoever in how long patients should or should not be
at work.

“The
whole area around stress, depression, anxiety and bereavement is totally
subjective, and our only interest is maintaining a relationship with our
patient.”

HR
agrees the system isn’t working. Of the HR professionals surveyed, 93 per cent
believe doctors are issuing sick-notes too readily, and estimate that 35 per
cent of the sicknotes they see are from malingerers.

Cara
Davani, head of HR at Tower Hamlets council, said local authorities face the
problem of people claiming to be ill when issues are raised about their
performance. “If an individual thinks they are stressed, it is very difficult
for doctors not to sign them off as sick,” she said.

Ben
Willmott, employment relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development (CIPD), said HR professionals need to ensure they have the
right policies and procedures in place to cope with problems.

He
said effective people management policies, support, well-defined roles,
training and achievable targets, are key.

“Some
staff will regularly take days off when they don’t need to,” said Willmott. “It
is up to HR to make sure people work in an environment where they are less
likely to say: ‘I don’t feel like going to work today’.”

By Quentin Reade

We asked Personnel Today readers to tell us about the worst cases of
malingering or sicknote fraud they have seen. 
Here are the horror stories

– A woman signed off work by her GP for a ‘broken ankle’ was spotted the
same week at a nightclub, dancing in high heels.

– A man signed off with back strain told his boss he was bed-ridden, but
when the employer went on a home visit with the occupational health nurse, they
found him up a ladder painting the exterior of his house.

– An employee suffered with ‘post-traumatic stress’ for 15 months after a
fire in her office which occurred at 1am. Not that she was in the office at the
time – the first she heard of it was when her boss called her at 7am tell her
there had been a fire and that she would need to work from another office.

– An arthritic index finger on the left hand of a right-handed employee
resulted in nine months’ absence. The worker was a renowned malingerer – his
colleagues’ had nicknamed him ‘sicknote’.

– One employee sent in sicknotes while in jail.

– A worker who was ‘sick’ for 12 months was caught running his own mobile
burger van.

– Someone signed off for stress – and then appeared on a live television
quiz show.

– A man went off work with a skin rash. When HR investigated, it was found
he had not taken a bath in months.

– A sicknote issued on the first day of sickness gave three months off for
‘indigestion’.

– An employee signed off sick with ‘depression’ after being caught looking
at animal porn on the internet on a customer’s computer.

– An employee on full pay stood outside the pub waving to colleagues
travelling to work on night shift, shouting: "They can’t touch me when I’m
on the sick."

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