Proposed sick note changes and what they mean for HR professionals

April 21st 2023 | Posted by Phil Scott

Long term sickness absence is a major problem in the United Kingdom (UK).

Between June and August 2022, around 2.5 million people were outside the labour market due to a long-term illness. The UK government is looking at taking action to address the issue.

Telling GPs not to issue sick notes is one of the changes that the government is considering. Instead, medical professionals could be encouraged to support individuals to remain in work. This proposed change may seem like good news for businesses as it would lead to an expanded overall workforce. However, top HR professionals are aware of potential pitfalls and risks that could ensue.

What are the potential changes to sick notes?

To get a better understanding of what changes could mean for HR professionals, it’s essential to understand what these changes are. The biggest possible change is advice to healthcare professionals to refrain from signing individuals off work and instead support individuals to remain within the workplace. This change is being considered together with amendments to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) practices so that individuals can retain some benefits when they first return to the workforce from a long term sickness absence.

Experienced HR managers know that ensuring people remain within the workforce is only part of the story. They understand that just because an individual is regarded as fit for work does not mean they are capable of carrying out certain duties. There is also a possibility that someone who is regarded as fit for work after a long term absence may not actually want to work. This lack of enthusiasm is likely to make them a less than valuable resource.

What organisations should consider if changes happen

Given the possible downside of changes to sick note procedures, there are certain things that top HR professionals are aware of that their organisations should consider. For example, individuals could claim disability discrimination or unfair dismissal if an organisation takes action against them based solely on the fact that they are signed fit for work.

To avoid this type of situation from developing, HR professionals know the value of making their own assessments as well as taking into account fit note information. If this type of attention to detail is not present, it could leave organisations open to numerous claims from individuals who say they are unfit to carry out certain duties but are not signed off as unfit by a medical professional.

So, if a move towards fewer sick notes does happen, experienced HR managers know it will be even more important than it is now to take advice from occupational health specialists in addition to making more effective use of fit notes. This type of early intervention will serve to support individuals in addition to protecting organisations against costly and damaging disputes.

Any actual changes to sick notes have yet to be confirmed. However, the most forward thinking HR managers are already preparing for the potential effects of an expanded workforce consisting of individuals who may not consider themselves to be fit for work even though they are not signed off as sick.

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