Is the fit note unfit for work?

The fit note scheme has failed to reduce sick absence in its first year, companies say. But let's not write it off just yet, surely...

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
More than a third of businesses reckon the Government's new fit note scheme, introduced last April to get sick people back to work quicker, has made absolutely no difference. That's according to a survey by EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, which found that just 25% said it had helped.
 
This news may leave policymakers feeling a little green. The idea was to encourage a fundamental change in attitudes - so whereas the sick note focused on what a person couldn't do, the fit note would focus on what they could. This would reduce the amount of time they'd need to be signed off, potentially saving the nation a fortune.
 
Trouble is, more than 40% of business respondents say the scheme has led to no better advice from GPs on how to get people back faster. For their part, doctors say they're confused over what to advise, questioning how they're supposed to fill out the forms properly in a 10-minute consultation. And you can hardly blame a GP if they're not sure what a driving instructor with a bad back should be getting on with until they're back up to speed.
 
Welfare reform minister Lord Freud admitted back in March that doctors often ignored the new system, because they didn't like the implications. 'We expect GPs to be the advocates for the health of people – it's very hard to then say you need to be policemen,' he said.
 
Another possibly unfortunate development in the last year is that 46% of workers took no sick days off at all last year - suggesting that some genuinely ill people have been struggling into work. The theory is that they were eager to show their faces, to avoid being earmarked for redundancy.
 
There are clearly issues to be addressed. But it seems wrong to chuck the healthy baby out with the bathwater. This is an expensive problem: according to a study by PwC in April, UK employees take an average of 10 unscheduled days absence each year (compared to 5.5 in the US and 4.5 in Asia), and sick days account for 80% of that - potentially costing us £32bn a year. That's the last thing we need, given the slow beep of the economy's heart monitor right now.
 
One suggested solution is to digitise the system, offering GPs drop-down menus of suitable tasks - particularly since the EEF reckons employers can't always read GPs' scribble (seems a more sensible solution than handwriting classes). Either way, let's not give up on fit notes just yet. Trying to bring about a fundamental culture shift takes time and perseverance - we can't expect it to happen overnight, just because the rules change.

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