The fit note has, by and large, had a positive effect in terms of reducing long-term sickness absence since its introduction in 2010, but there remains considerable variation in how GPs use it, research has argued.
A study by think tank the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) found that more than one-third of fit notes issued by doctors are for mild-to-moderate mental health disorders.
The study was carried out in conjunction with the University of Liverpool and commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Patients who were living in more socially deprived areas were much more likely to be diagnosed with a mild-to-moderate mental health disorder – most likely to be depression. Some 41% of fit notes were issued for this reason, it found.
However, for those living in better-off neighbourhoods, fewer than 31% of fit notes were issued for this type of health problem, and they were most likely to be issued for stress.
The research also found that women were more likely than men, and younger people were more likely than older people, to receive a fit note for a mental health condition.
Nearly 12% of all patients received at least one fit note that advised they “may be fit for work”.
Jim Hillage, director of research at the IES and one of the authors of the report, said: “Most people who need a fit note get one lasting four weeks or less. However, about one in five sickness absence episodes last for over 12 weeks and 4% last longer than 28 weeks.
“Older people, males and those living in areas of social deprivation are the most likely to have a long-term sickness episode.”