Record number of employees signed off work as UK fit notes hit 10.4 million, research finds

Medical certification increased after Covid restrictions were eased, which commentators put down to more ‘rigorous’ HR requirements and the return to shared workplaces
March 24, 2023

Medical certification increased after Covid restrictions were eased, which commentators put down to more ‘rigorous’ HR requirements and the return to shared workplaces.

The number of fit notes issued by NHS medical professionals has hit an all-time high as the UK slowly recovers from the pandemic, analysis has found.

Research conducted by law firm GQ|Littler, based on NHS data for the year ending September 2022, showed an 11 per cent increase in the number of fit notes issued – up to 10.4 million.

GQ|Littler suggested there were four likely reasons for the increase in fit notes, the first being a return to employees seeking fit notes following Covid, as they were sometimes more difficult to obtain during the pandemic, with some employers relaxing the requirement.

Second, the law firm said this rise was most likely caused by the current state of the economy and the after effects of the pandemic, which resulted in more absences as a result of mental health issues, and therefore more people needing fit notes.

The third reason, it said, was an increase in illnesses as restrictions were relaxed and more people mixed again, and the fourth was employers allowing people back into the workplace once Covid restrictions were lifted.

Sophie Vanhegan, partner at GQ|Littler, said that while many businesses were more relaxed about requiring fit notes for lengthy absences during the pandemic when it was difficult to see a doctor, they were now becoming more “rigorous” about obtaining certification from medical professionals.

The “cost of living crisis and challenging economic climate is also affecting employees’ mental health”, Vanhegan added, which could be one reason for the increase in fit notes issued for mental health-related absences.

She suggested businesses take a “proactive approach” to support employee health and wellbeing at work to try to minimise employee sickness absence. “Offering workplace support and encouraging open dialogue about health issues can help to flag issues early on before they develop into long-term absence issues,” she said.

Echoing this, Gemma Bullivant, HR coach and consultant, said “one important thing that organisations can do is provide support and resources for a wide range of life challenges, such as financial wellness support in benefit packages”.

“These ‘perks’ are often seen as ways to enhance the package, but are also fundamentally linked to basic physical and mental health and wellbeing,” she said.

Bullivant added that we frequently believe stress only affects our mental health, but it also affects our physical health and we must remember that “stressors” apply to everything we face in life both at work and home. “It’s not just a matter of assisting someone with their workload,” she said.

Until recently, fit notes could only be issued by GPs, but with a change implemented on 1 July 2022 to alleviate pressure on primary care services, nurses, occupational therapists, pharmacists and physiotherapists are now able to issue them as well.

A fit note is given out if a worker misses more than seven days of work because of illness to show the employer the reason for the absence and any relevant advice on how to support the worker to remain in or return to work.

However, according to data from the Office for National Statistics, a record 2.5 million people missed work in the three months before January as a result of long-term sickness. In the spring budget, chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced measures to address this problem, including a £400m plan to increase the amount of mental and physical health support that is available to workers.

Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, said it was time to go back to the fundamentals and begin asking people about their wellbeing, because “prevention is preferable to treatment, because it will help identify problems and enable support to be put in place”.

It was “important for organisations to have supportive absence management procedures” in place, Arshad added, because the data for fit notes coming in after seven days indicates an epidemic of long-term sickness.

Managers should also be trained on the basics of staying in touch with employees and flagging where support can be provided, he said: “Occupational health can go a long way in helping manage long-term sickness as the data behind absences is crucial to identifying support and training and focusing on reducing sickness levels.”

Original Article: People Management

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