Government Enacts Changes to Fit Notes

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On 6 September 2023, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published updated guidance on fit notes for employers and line managers.

Employers have welcomed the updated guidance as absence levels seem to be at the top of the agenda. A recent survey carried out by the CIPD in September 2023 found that employers are experiencing the highest levels of employee absences in over a decade (7.8 days per employee), despite the rise of remote working. We believe this reflects post-pandemic life, however the same study also found that stress is a major contributor as well as the impact that the cost-of-living crisis is having on employees’ wellbeing.

Whilst the overall rules regarding the use of fit notes have not changed, the updated guidance issued by the DWP now includes:

  1. A checklist for employers which is designed to facilitate discussions between an employer and employee who are covered by a fit note. The checklist covers the following points.
    • Reasonable adjustments to support an employee returning to work.
    • Statutory sick pay guidance
    • Maintaining regular contact with employees
    • Guidance on an employer’s ability to request an employee’s medical records and the importance of the employee’s consent.
    • General/formal requirements of a fit note.
  2. Additional details surrounding completion of the forms.
  3. Six case studies which assist employers manage sickness absences, explain how fit notes should be used and support employees returning to work after a period of sickness absence.

The new guidance is designed to encourage employers to take a more proactive stance in managing sickness absence in the workplace as it reduces costs, minimises disruption and aids in recovery and wellbeing of employees thereby leading to a happier and more productive workforce. In our experience, early intervention, maintaining regular contact with employees and seeking occupational health support assists employees in returning to the workplace sooner.

Exploring adjustments

The guidance and in particular the case studies, emphasise temporary changes that an employer may consider making in situations where an employee has been signed off as “may be fit for work.” Although employers are not obliged to follow the suggested advice on fit notes in respect of changes or adaptions to an employee’s role they should always be considered. Why would you not do so when you want to assist a return to work? Employers should also take into consideration the fact that the condition may at that time or sometime in the future be classed as a disability at which point there is a legal obligation to consider reasonable adjustments. Sometimes it’s the smallest changes that can have quite an impact on an employee’s ability to return or improve.

Practical tips for Employers

Whilst the guidance is a useful tool to refer to when faced with employee absence, it is equally important for employers to be proactive in managing employee absences and to do this, we would recommend the following:

  • Absence monitoring – keeping accurate records can enable you to spot patterns of absences which may imply an underlying problem (i.e. health condition or disciplinary issue).
  • Reviewing workplace policies including absence management procedures.
  • Carrying out return-to-work interviews after all absences.
  • Requesting fit notes promptly.
  • Maintaining regular contact with an employee on sick leave and considering how often this should be done.
  • Talking to the employee about the level and type of contact they’d like when absent.
  • Considering the need for an occupational health referral.
  • Considering the need for any adjustments to the role or way of working.

We’re experienced in helping businesses to draft and implement policies and procedures including absence management policies and we regularly advise businesses on absence related issues.

We regularly advise businesses on absence and absence management. In our experience, early intervention is best. If you’d like support on putting policies into place or on managing sickness absence, please contact our Employment team for support.

(November 2023)