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  • Writer's pictureSusan Wakelin

How will the changes with doctors fit notes affect you?

Updated: May 25, 2023

The sickness absence rate in the UK in 2021, was the highest it had been since 2010, when it rose to 2.2%, from a record low of 1.8% during the COVID pandemic in 2020.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) an estimated 149.3 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in the UK in 2021, equivalent to 4.6 days per worker.


The most common reason for sickness absence in 2021 was "other" conditions, including accidents, poisoning, diabetes and coronavirus (COVID-19), with COVID-19 accounting for nearly one in four of all occurrences of sickness absence.


The groups with the highest rates of sickness absence in 2021 included women, older workers, those with long-term health conditions, people working part-time and people working in caring, leisure and other service occupations.


How does high sickness levels affect employers?


Staff shortages has affected many employers and industries across the UK since Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, which is compounded by an increase in economic inactivity, such as early retirement.


The Government are therefore considering a range of initiatives to reduce the levels of economic inactivity. One such initiative being considered is reducing the number of employees being signed off work sick.


Sickness absence puts pressure on businesses in many ways. Not only does it put pressure on employers to find other employees to cover the workload or to hire temporary staff who often need additional training, all of which may affect staff morale, it may also reduce productivity and potentially impact customer service and reduce customer satisfaction. In addition to this, according to the XpertHR survey 2022, absence costs employers an average of £781 per employee in 2021.


How are the Government looking at reducing sickness absence?


Government ministers are considering a range of new initiatives to reduce levels of economic inactivity, which includes reducing sickness absence.


The government believes that there are benefits to keeping employees in work, rather than automatically signing them off sick, especially for those with mental health problems. To do this, they aim to provide additional support for individuals to enable them to continue working and minimise the amount of long-term absence.


Medical professionals will therefore be encouraged to use statements for fitness for work (fit notes) more productively to advice employers how to support their employee to return to work, and consider additional external support services, rather than signing them off for a period of time.


It is not always easy for someone to see their doctor within seven days and so, since July 2022, other health professionals other than GPs or hospital doctors can issue a fit note, including nurses, occupational therapists, pharmacists and physiotherapists.


What can employers do to reduce sickness absence?


Employers who notice that an employee is uncharacteristically struggling with their work or is aware that they have an underlying health condition, can arrange a meeting with them to discuss the problems and challenges they are facing in the workplace. During the meeting, the employer should listen to the employee to understand the areas they are struggling at work with and discuss with them any support and reasonable adjustments that will help to improve their working conditions and environment for them.


Sometimes an employer would benefit from more expertise and can refer the employee to occupational health or a medical professional to obtain a medical report and suggestions in relation to how they can support the employee at work.


Where reasonable adjustments are agreed, employers should meet with the employee on a regular basis to review how they are getting on and whether the adjustments should be updated.


In addition to this, employers can provide support such as an Employee Assistance Programme, mental health first aiders, flexible working arrangements and more to help pro-actively reduce absence levels.


SWan HR Consultancy (London and Kent)


SWan HR is an HR consultancy that specialises in HR support for small to medium sized businesses in the South East.

"Where HR Succeeds, the Business Achieves"

SWan HR was founded by Susan Wakelin, MCIPD, who is a qualified HR professional with over thirty years' experience, from setting up, auditing and improving HR functions to management coaching and supporting organisations through difficult situations, transformation and change.


SWan HR provides a broad range of tailored HR services including an HR audit, HR advice, HR outsourcing, HR coaching and project work for all businesses.


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Contact Susan Wakelin now to take advantage of a free half-hour consultation to talk through your initial HR concerns and how you can manage these going forward.


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