Myth: You need to be 100% fit to return to work

There are two common misconceptions about return to work after illness: 1) that you have to be fully recovered to return and 2) that you cannot return until a medical certificate runs out. Excluding contagious diseases or health and safety reasons barring a return, you don’t have to be 100% fit to return. “The earlier you can return to work the better. Work is often part of treatment, and getting back to work is part of the recovery process” (Professor Burton, NHS).

Rehabilitation is not the same as presenteeism

There has been a lot of discussion about presenteeism as the evil twin of absenteeism. It is important that presenteeism is not confused with work-based rehabilitation. When the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) published a review of presenteeism (May 2016), it defined presenteeism simply as “showing up for work when one is ill”. Using such a simple interpretation of the term without differentiating the types of illness means the writers bundled together acute short term illnesses like colds and flu with longer term conditions like broken bones, back pain and mental health problems.
It is important that managers and HR professionals understand the difference between presenteeism – a symptom of masking a short term absence problem – and a phased or supported return to work.

Long term absentees should be encouraged to return to work

It is a widely accepted fact that returning to work even when not 100% fit after a longer term absence is good for recovery. It’s also beneficial for mental health (even where the primary reason for absence is not mental health -related). The longer an employee stays absent, the lower the chances of a successful return to work. As soon as someone feels well enough to work, doing so should be encouraged.

Medical certificates – a help or a hindrance?

Have you ever heard of an employee returning to work before their sick (or fit) note ran out? It is almost unheard of. In fact, when issuing a sick note, a doctor is simply signing their patient eligible for Statutory Sick Pay. The patient’s actual fitness to work is a secondary matter. Oftentimes a GP does not have the time or specialisation in Occupational Medicine to properly diagnose the latter.

Fit notes were devised as a way to combat the bad habit of simply signing employees off sick. Also focusing everyone’s attention on the fact that you may be fit to do some parts of your job, even if you are not 100% fit. Sadly, the fit note experiment has not been particularly successful. As few GPs suggest alterations that could help employees return to work sooner.