The number of fit notes issued by GPs hit a record high of 10.3 million in 2021, a 17% increase from the 8.8 million issued in 2020, research has suggested.
The analysis by employment law firm GQ|Littler comes as fit note certification has been expanded this month to a wider range of healthcare professionals beyond just GPs and doctors, including potentially occupational health nurses.
The increase in fit notes was likely to be down to a number of factors, GQ|Littler said, including the higher numbers of Covid infections in 2021 as people returned to the office plus overseas travel resuming following lockdowns in 2020.
For example, there were 7.3 million cases of Covid between April 1 and December 31, 2021, compared to two million in the same period in 2020, it pointed out.
During the lockdowns, it was likely many people continued to work from home while unwell. Moreover, early on in the pandemic, when many workers were furloughed, especially those working in hospitality and tourism, they would have been unlikely to need fit notes if they were unwell.
However, as 2021 saw the end of furlough and many employers getting staff back into the workplace, while higher numbers of Covid cases as the alpha, delta and then omicron variants of Covid-19 took hold, this combination of these factors likely contributed to the rise in fit notes.
Fit note certification
Last year also saw a 10% increase in the number of ‘stress-related’ fit notes issued, from 257,000 in 2020 to 282,000 in 2021, GQ|Littler said.
This is a continuation of long-term trends in fit note certification, although the latest increase was probably fuelled by the impact of the pandemic on mental health and general anxiety.
GQ|Littler also warned that the rising cost of living could exacerbate the mental health crisis, especially if, as expected, prices continue to spiral this autumn and winter, leading to a further increase in stress-related fit notes being issued.
Sophie Vanhegan, partner at GQ|Littler, said: “The spike in fit notes may reflect a rise in Covid infections following the end of lockdowns in 2021. As Covid cases start to rise again, employers are all too aware that this may hit staffing levels at a time when businesses are already under pressure from staff shortages.
“One legacy from the pandemic is it is now frowned upon to come into the office whilst visibly unwell. This could also have contributed to the increase in notes being issued in roles which cannot be performed from home
“Supporting employees through their mental health issues is extremely important, not just for productivity and morale. In today’s competitive jobs market, organisations that are viewed as unsupportive may have difficulty attracting and retaining talent,” she added.