Fit notes in major overhaul of sick leave system

Employees who are off work sick for more than seven days, as from 6 April, are to be issued with 'fit notes' rather than sick notes by their GPs.

Under the new fit note system, GPs will be able to say whether someone is not fit or may be fit for work. If they may be fit for work, the doctor can suggest what aspects of their job they can still carry out.

Then it will be up to the employer to help the employee to return to work in some capacity.

At the launch of the scheme, Health minister, Ben Bradshaw said: "We know that sickness absence is economically and socially damaging and makes people more likely to drift into social exclusion and poverty.

"Getting people back into work quicker is good for their health as well as the country's finances."

The fit notes replace the traditional sick notes which simply stated whether someone was fit for work. Now GPs will be required to declare someone "not fit for work" or "fit for work taking into account the following advice".

If an employee is deemed fit for some work, their GP will detail whether a phased return to work is required, whether the employee's duties and hours need to be altered and whether any workplace adaptations should be introduced.

Employers aren't obliged to act on the advice that is set out in a "may be fit for work" note - it isn't binding - but it may be worth making simple and practical adjustments to help employees return to work and cut down on sickness absence.

The arrangements for Statutory Sick Pay and any occupational sick pay schemes stay the same.

Unlike the Disability Discrimination Act, which covers illnesses that persist for more than 12 months, most fit notes apply to temporary and short-term problems.

Dr Laurence Buckman, chair of the British Medical Association's GPs committee, said: "The responsibility will be on employers to act. If a GP decides their patient is capable of some form of work, for example if they've got back pain and they should temporarily avoid elements of their normal job, then it will be down to the employer to be flexible enough to accommodate them."

Dr Buckman added: "Employers have a responsibility to provide adequate occupational health services and the government must encourage them to provide that if the overall plan to help more people back to work is to be truly effective."

Katja Hall, director of employment policy at the CBI, said: "This is a change that employers will welcome. All too often a person is signed off sick when they are able to manage some forms of their work."