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I’m trying to think of an interesting way to say “hello” to you and I’m drawing a blank, so let’s use this as our introduction shall we!? How are you? Anything exciting to report?

Sadly, there isn’t much excitement to tell from the Pearson-Batt household at the minute. With the weather as it is, it feels a bit like we’re still in hibernation. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of exciting things (theatre trips, family/friend outings and holidays big and small) coming up to keep you hooked on our blogs – as if our top quality employment law content wasn’t enough?!

The most exciting thing to happen recently is that we took Benji for his annual vaccinations last week (maybe not exciting for Benji). Poor Benj was informed that he is a little bit too “loved” and is now slightly overweight so he’s on a strict diet. He also has a nasty ear infection which he hadn’t bothered to inform us of and so is now on antibiotics.

It wasn’t all bad though as he was able to pick out a toy from Pets at Home afterwards. He went with Felix Fox. What? You’re telling me you that we’re the only people who give their dog’s toys names? Honestly! If you asked Benji to bring you his rabbit he’d stare vacantly. But if you asked him to bring Ruper, he’d trot right over, pick him out of the toy box and bring him back, pleased as punch with himself. If you want to know the names of Benji’s other toys, do just ask.

One thing you don’t need to ask for, though, is an employment law update. I’ve got you covered, don’t you worry!

You probably can’t have missed Rishi Sunak’s statement that the government plans to overhaul the current “fit note” system, taking the ability to provide fit notes away from GPs and giving it to independent and qualified assessors.

In an election year and following statistics that some 11 million fit notes were issued in 2023, it’s not really surprising for the government to come out with this “big ticket” item.

Absence from work has major implications for organisations across the UK, both direct and indirect. You have to arrange cover, that can result in increased costs (if you’re putting somebody temporarily in post or relying on agency staff) or it can result in reduced morale in the wider workforce (“why are we having to cover here?”). It can lead to reduced productivity overall and that can ultimately impact the service you are providing to clients, customers and other key stakeholders.

All that being said, the issue can’t surely rest solely at the feet of GPs giving fit notes and employees asking for them? Employers have to take some ownership of sickness absence as well. Being proactive both before, during and after periods of absence is going to help you massively. How do you achieve that? Well, we suggest the following:

  • Have a clear policy on sickness absence reporting – make sure staff know what they should be doing (from who this needs reporting to, to the employees who are reporting the absence) and make sure they stick to this;
  • Ask for fit notes promptly – employees should be providing them to you where their absence due to illness lasts for more than seven calendar days, sure, but you need to be proactive and consistent in the way that you ask for fit notes. If a fit note expires, check with your employee shortly before that is due to expire what their plans are and if they say they are still not fit to return, remind them that they’ll need to get an updated fit note over to you, preferably before the other one runs out so there’s no gaps;
  • Don’t take the fit note for granted – actually read what it says. If the person who has signed the fit note has said the employee “may be fit for work”, you’ve got to assess whether or not the recommended actions that should then be included are reasonable in the circumstances. If they are, you’d be well advised to put them in place, otherwise you’re risking discrimination claims. If they aren’t, then treat the employee as being unfit for work and explain this to them.
  • Where you receive a number of fit notes from one employee, consider them in their totality. Is there a pattern of absence? Is there some sort of underlying problem here – whether that be a health condition, which might be a disability, or something else (like them avoiding difficult problems at work or a breakdown in the working relationship?)
  • Don’t just think “out of sight, out of mind” – have regular reasonable contact with staff who are signed off. If you have that regular contact with staff you’ll be able to get a better understanding of whether they’re likely to be able to come back or not. Staff who are just forgotten about, often stay off sick longer. If you’re unsure what is reasonable contact, ask the member of staff what they would consider reasonable in the circumstances.
  • Remember, whilst there’s no formal requirement for employees to be signed back to work by a healthcare professional, if their fit note is still active you should be extremely careful about having them back in work without something from a healthcare professional saying it’s ok. If you do have somebody working where there’s evidence they are not fit to work, this could impact your insurance and (heaven forbid) if something should go wrong, you could be exposed to a personal injury claim.
  • Don’t let it just sit there – as well as keeping in contact with staff who are signed off, you should also make sure you actively manage the absence. So, if it does become long-term, refer back to your absence management processes and where reasonable start to formalise this. That will give you a better understanding of precisely what you are dealing with and allow you to adjust your approach as needed. If you are in a bigger organisation, this may mean putting the pressure on line managers to keep this contact with their employees, but make sure they have the right training and support in place to do a good job of managing absences within their teams.

Dealing with sickness absence, particularly where it is long-term, is a difficult tightrope to walk. You’ve got to balance the needs of your organisation with an employee’s right to take time off where they are not well.

If you’re ever unsure, you know that you can contact Precept right? We’re here and happy to help.