Fit notes help the economy return to full health?

The introduction of the 'fit note' should make it easier to manage absence - and may even save £240m.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A much-needed shake-up of the sickness absence rules has finally come into force. As of today, the old-fashioned ‘sick note’ will be replaced with a ‘fit note’ – with the emphasis on what employees can do, rather than what they can’t. The Government claims the new scheme is a win-win: staff will get back to work sooner, which could save companies a packet by reducing the number of days lost to sickness absence (and possibly speed their recovery). But the new scheme does have its critics. Union bosses argue that it’ll be difficult for time-pressed doctors to judge what kind of work people can do, which might mean that they're sent back to work too soon. Doctors reckon more needs to be done to make sure firms understand their end of the deal. And Jeremy Kyle is presumably worried that it will hammer his viewing figures...

In the new era of the Department for Work and Pensions’ ‘Statement of Fitness of Work’, doctors will still be able to say that someone is unfit for work. However, they'll also be encouraged to spell out aspects of jobs that employees can still do. So, for example, the staff member may be able to go back to work if they were able to do shorter hours, or perform slightly different duties.

The hope is that abandoning the old sick-note based system, which has been in force since the NHS came into being in 1948, will benefit businesses and employees alike. For one thing, it should save money. If these so-called ‘fit notes’ succeed in reducing the 172m working days UK plc loses to sickness each year, the Government reckons it could benefit the economy to the tune of £240m. An amount not to be sniffed at, we’re sure you’ll agree.

What's more, Dr Laurence Buckman of the British Medical Association also argues that it’s in the best interests of employees too: ‘Being in work is good for people's health and wellbeing,’ he claims. However, not everyone agrees with him. Union leaders warn that giving staff members a list of tasks to perform when they're ill might not be conducive to them getting back to full health; that this will just give employers carte blanche to force staff back to work before they're ready.

Clearly the new rules need to be implemented sensitively (though presumably doctors should be able to stop firms taking advantage). But in principle, surely it makes sense to start focusing on what staff on long-term absence can do, rather than what they can't? If fit notes help to bring about a shift in attitudes, so much the better.


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