Fit notes prompt return-to-work conversations but fail to curb absence

Fit notes have “nudged” managers to have conversations with staff on sick leave about their return to work but have failed to improve absence levels, say employers.

In a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth, more than half (52%) of organisations said that the introduction of the fit note has enabled line managers to have conversations about health issues with their staff.

However, despite opening up this dialogue, only one employer in 10 (11%) said that the introduction of the fit note had reduced absence in their organisation.

The fit note replaced the sick note in April 2010 and gave doctors the ability to advise whether or not patients may be fit for work if adjustments were made, such as a phased return to work, altered hours or amended duties. The intention was to reduce the number of people on long-term sickness absence by helping employers to identify when staff may be able to work in some capacity and help them return to the workplace.

However, only one-tenth (11%) of the respondents who took part in the survey believed that fit notes were being used effectively by GPs.

Dr Jill Miller, research adviser at the CIPD, commented: “The survey suggests the fit note has yet to have a real impact on reducing absence levels. This is perhaps not surprising considering the culture change needed by GPs, employers and employees to ensure that a phased return to work is more frequently regarded as a positive and integral part of employees’ rehabilitation and recovery.

“We are seeing some positive reviews of the fit note from GPs, but employers do not share such a view at present. GPs and employers need to work on the same page, promoting what is best for the individual employee’s health and wellbeing, but also what makes sense for the business.”

She added that it may take up to five years before the fit note is consistently used effectively and viewed more favourably as a tool to aid “early and lasting” returns to work.

Last month, a government-commissioned review of sickness absence recommended that an independent assessment service should take over return-to-work assessments from GPs.

A spokesperson for Simplyhealth said that they are keen to hear the Government’s response to this review. She added: “Helping people get back into work following illness or prolonged sickness absence is beneficial for both the employee and employer. Quality support and training are vital for initiatives to properly embed and become successful within our organisations.”

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