Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone Sift Media
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News: Fit note system fails to cut sickness absence rates

15th Nov 2012
Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone Sift Media
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HR professionals are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the ‘fit note’ system as many believe that it has not helped them to cut sickness absence rates within their organisation.

According to a survey of 212 practitioners undertaken by online HR services provider, XpertHR, a key problem is that GPs are failing to use the sick leave forms in the way that they are meant to be used.   As a result, just under two thirds of those questioned said that the fit note regime had not helped to cut overall sickness absence rates, while 62% believed that it had not helped them to manage the situation more effectively either, compared with 52% in 2011.   Charlotte Wolff, an XpertHR editor and author of the report, said that the study confirmed the findings of a government-sponsored review of sickness absence.   This research had concluded that too many people were still being declared completely unfit for work by their GPs, and that, if a doctor did tick the ‘may-be-fit-for-work’ option, they rarely provided any helpful advice to back it up.   The nub of the problem was that “doctors appear to be too busy to use the fit note in an intelligent way, and frequently have a limited understanding of the nature of the employee’s work”, Wolff explained.   For instance, just under four out of five of the HR professionals questioned said that the ‘may-be-fit-for-work’ option had either never been ticked in any of the fit notes received over the last two years, or if it had been ticked, it happened in less than a quarter of cases.   Nonetheless, 68% of respondents pointed out that the category had proved useful in encouraging them to have an open dialogue with employees about their return to work plans.   A further 38% complained, however, that most GPs failed to provide any useful comments on fit notes, which could help them to understand why a staff member might or might not be considered well enough to work. If such comments did exist, they were present in less than a quarter of all cases.   But a further 54% of those questioned believed that the recent introduction of computer-completed fit notes would help to make the system more effective. Computer-completed fit notes can be printed out and given to employees, with the aim of making them more legible and increasing employers’ confidence that they haven’t been tampered with.   However, some 73% of respondents said that they had contradicted the doctor’s advice anyway and made their own changes to make it easier for employees to return to work.

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