You may be aware that the categories of people who are able to sign a Fit Note for the purposes of Statutory Sick Pay and other Social Security claims has been broadened with effect from 1 July 2022, so that pharmacists, physiotherapists, registered nurses and occupational therapists are now all able to sign Statements of Fitness for Work.

The old rules that such paperwork needed to be ‘wet’ signed by the GP have also been removed so it is now possible for the electronic generation of this paperwork in order to improve the way in which medical professionals are able to issue such documents. The Fit Note is still required to be signed and include the name of the healthcare professional who authorised it to be legally valid so a version that is blank isn’t genuine.

The Department for Work and Pensions has issued guidance for healthcare professionals which is called “Getting the most out of your Fit Note”.

It is interesting reading, in particular the instructions to medics to focus on fitness for work in general rather than fitness to attend a particular occupation, which suggests that it ought to be harder for somebody to achieve a state where they are unable to work at all, compared to being unable to perform aspects of their job.

The case studies are interesting as well. Particularly the fifth one called “relationship issues at work”. It gives the example of a patient complaining that she doesn’t get on with her manager, is feeling very stressed and wants to be signed off work. The medic determines in the consultation that although the situation is upsetting for the individual, they do not have a mental health condition and that they are fit for work. The medic then explains to the individual that they can see that she is being affected by work but is not in a situation where she should be issued with a Fit Note. The patient reacts badly and tells the medic that their manager has been really horrible to her and that she is finding it difficult to cope. The medic is directed to say that they appreciate that that may well be the case but to explain that the situation is not making the patient ill. If they were ill then they would be issued with a Fit Note and the medic would be acting with their health interests in mind. Instead, the medic is encouraged to explain that this is not a medical problem but a management issue and that going off on the sick will not resolve the problem or help her to find another job if that is what she decides to do. If that conversation happened, I think all employers would be relieved.

The medic is then encouraged to discuss with the individual whether they can talk to somebody at work to help resolve their problems such as speaking to HR, a Trade Union representative or speaking to ACAS. In the case study, the patient decides to approach another colleague for advice, to check the internet and to look at ACAS materials on managing conflicts at work.

Using that example, the situations we come across in HR where this is some kind of conflict or dispute in work, should not by this analysis result in somebody being signed off from work. It will be really interesting to see to what extent the medics toughen up their approach, as we all know that the stereotype is that Drs will provide a Fit Note “on demand”.

In the question and answer section of the document, it’s interesting to see that there is a question relating to “what if my patient fears job loss, stigma or discrimination if I reveal a health condition (or its effect on their work functioning) on their Fit Note?”. The answer is as follows: “if you feel that revealing a particular diagnosis or a limitation would harm your patient’s wellbeing, compromise their position with their employer, you can enter a less precise diagnosis on the Fit Note”. We have all come across examples where a Fit Note has said something like “unwell” or “stress” rather than an actual medical condition – this is why it is always worth referring somebody to occupational health to get the full picture. It reminds us that this scenario may be behind what a medic has written and that all may not be what it seems from the face of the paperwork: further exploration is necessary.

It is interesting to note that medics are encouraged to only issue bereavement related Fit Notes if somebody is genuinely so distressed by what happened to them that they are unfit for work – where they are not actually medically unwell then they should be having compassionate leave with their employer not time off sick. Again it will be interesting to see how many medics follow this guidance.

There is also further guidance for employers and line managers: Fit note: guidance for employers and line managers. Amongst other things, this repeats the position that has been the case for some while now but which I find employers are often confused by, in relation to return to work before the end of a Fit Note. The employee can come back to work at any time, even if this is before their Fit Note expires and they do not need to go back to their healthcare professional first. If somebody is coming back and you believe it is too soon or harmful in some way, then you would need to refer to occupational health for an assessment and further guidance. Where a healthcare professional assesses somebody is fit for work, they will not be issued with a Fit Note (there are some very narrow occupations where certification has to be given).

Something else that strike me about this new guidance is the emphasis that people do not need to be 100% fit to return to work because they may well be returning to work with adjustments and need to do alternative duties. That would probably surprise employees.

Refreshing Law
4 July 2022