Mythbusting.  How to read a fit note.

Myth: Employers are bound by suggestions on a fit note

Fit Note was introduced in 2010. Since then, many employers mistakenly think that they are obligated to implement suggestions made by a GP on a fit note. In fact, this is a myth. The Fit Note is intended to issue guidance on how an employee can return to work in the short term before they are expected to be fully fit for normal working duties. This means that the suggestions made on the Fit Note are expected to be temporary and should not impact on the employee returning to their full duties, eventually.

No obligation to implement the suggestions

The employer’s guidance issued by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) makes it very clear that if it is not practical for employers to implement the suggestions, the employer is not obligated to do so.

The suggestions might be material changes that could fairly easily be implemented in the employee’s office or workspace. For example, a more supportive chair or a desk nearer to natural light may be needed. However, sometimes a GP can suggest light duties or reduced or altered working hours and these may not be feasible to implement for a temporary amount of time.

Keep the employee informed

If you can’t accommodate the suggestions on a Fit Note, explain to the employee why you feel this is the right decision. In the interest of good employee-employer relations, keep a communication channel open and make sure the employee understands the situation. The reasons may seem obvious from a management perspective, but from an employee’s point of view may not be clear why they cannot return to work. Confused situations such as this can lead to tribunals and further action which is never favourable.

Employers can suggest alternative adjustments

Employers are also within their right to make alternative arrangements similar to those suggested by the GP to support a return to work, such as offering the employee a temporary alternative role. After all, the goal of the Fit Note is still being followed. It is, however, advised that these alternatives also be discussed with the GP or – better yet – with an Occupational Health clinician to ensure that the changes are in line with what the employee is capable of doing (especially if the absence is based on physical injury). Otherwise, there may be negative impacts to recovery that might not have been taken into account.

Employees can return before a Fit Note runs out

Reversely, when an employee wishes to return to work despite Fit Note declaring them unfit for any work, they are allowed to do so. The Fit Note is ultimately just a certificate that entitles the employee to Statutory Sick Pay and if an employee feels well enough to return to work in some capacity, then agreements can be made regardless of a valid Fit Note. If the employer and the employee agree that a return to work is possible and poses no health and safety concerns, then it is perfectly acceptable for the employee to return.

Either party can decline the alterations

An employee is within their right to turn down the suggestions made on a Fit Note. There may be a number of reasons why the employee does not feel ready to return to work and an employer must respect the employee’s decision.

Although a quick return to work is usually best for both the employee and the organisation, in some cases this is just not possible. When this is the case, all that is needed from an employer is a valid reason why the GP’s suggestions for altered duties or a phased return cannot be accomodated.