Rise in stress-related fit notes prompts call to investigate causes

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Employers have been urged to do more to uncover the root causes of absence, after it was revealed the number of fit notes issued for stress-related disorders increased by 8% last year.

Figures obtained from the NHS by law firm GQ Littler found that almost three-quarters of a million notes declaring an individual was not fit to work because of stress were issued in 2018/19, compared with 686,670 the previous year.

Meanwhile, the total number of fit notes issued by doctors for any reason increased 4% over the same period to 9.7 million (9.3 million in 2017/18).

Sophie Vanhegan, a partner at GQ Littler, said: “Mental health in the workplace is having something of a #MeToo moment. It is important that employers keep up with that change.

“Employers need to have adequate policies and practices in place for supporting  employees returning to work after a period of leave due to stress.

“If someone returning from a stress-related absence has been stripped of their previous responsibilities, or is otherwise treated less favourably than before, then they may have grounds for a disability discrimination claim.”

There was also an increase in the number of fit notes where doctors said an individual “may be fit to work” subject to a change in workplace conditions; some 668,720 were issued last year, compared with 629,440 the previous year.

Employers needed to do more to spot the early warning signs that a worker might be stressed, said Adrian Lewis, director at absence management software firm Activ Absence.

“The impact of stress doesn’t happen overnight. Often people have taken a few days off here and there, perhaps always on a Monday or are suffering from more colds than usual,” he said.

“These could be early warning signs that people are stressed out. If employers intervened earlier on to address why someone is feeling stressed, then it could help reduce the numbers having several days or even weeks signed off by the doctor.

“Once a manager knows someone is struggling, they can give support, suggest ways to deal with stress or direct them to specialist services. This enables them to nip stress in the bud before it becomes a bigger issue.”

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