Does the New ‘Fit Notes Law’ Affect Staff Leave Policy in UK?

The new law brings the introduction of digital fit notes in April (2022). So, how does this affect absence/sick request & approval policy in your business?
  • Author: Siva
  • Last updated: December 7, 2022
  • 8 Minutes
fit notes sick leave policy law in UK and its affect on small businesses explained by Papershift

© / Adobe Stock

People get sick. Being ill is an unfortunate part of life. But sickness in the workplace can be a disruption as well as a costly occurrence for business owners. That’s why it’s important for employers to have a robust system of dealing with employee sickness in place.

Recent changes to the law with respect to sick notes have changed the way sickness is dealt with and many companies will require them to rewrite their fit note policy.

But how do they go about editing such an important document and how do the changes affect the day-to-day running of the business?

Read on to find out.

What is a fit note?

Definition : Fit Note
A fit note is a letter given to an employee by a doctor when they have been off work sick for seven days or more.

It provides an explanation of the illness and recommendations for an effective return to work – for example, an employee may be able to return to work to do light duties after injury, but the fit note may recommend that they aren’t allowed to do any heavy lifting.

A fit note is also often referred to as the following:

  • GP note
  • Doctor’s note 
  • Sick note

The term ‘fit note’ is an informal name for a ‘Statement of Fitness for Work’.

When do employees need to produce a fit note?

If an employee is off work sick for 7 days or less, their employer should not ask for medical evidence that they have been ill. Instead, they can ask the employee to confirm that they’ve been ill. This can be done by filling in a form themselves when they return to work. This is called self-certification.

If an employee is off work sick for more than 7 days, their employer will usually ask for a Statement of Fitness for Work (fit note) from a healthcare professional stating what the sickness was and whether the employee needs any additional support when they return.

Featured Guide
Check our featured guide on ‘Return to work post sickness‘ to help employees get back sensibly. 

How do you count sick days?

When an employee works out the number of days they’ve been sick, they need to count all the days in a row they’ve been sick, including days they don’t usually work, such as weekends and bank holidays.

How does an employee get a fit note?

If an employee needs a fit note, they will need to contact the healthcare professional who is treating them. This should be a doctor, nurse, occupational therapist, pharmacist or physiotherapist. The healthcare professional will assess the employee, and if they decide their health affects their fitness for work, they can issue a fit note and advise either that:

  1. The employee is “not fit for work” for a specific period of time.
  2. The employee “may be fit for work taking into account the following advice”

The healthcare professional will choose the “may be fit for work” option if they think the employee is able to do some work, even if it is not their usual job, with support from the employer. For example, the healthcare professional may suggest possible changes to working conditions, such as:

  1. Returning to work gradually, for example, by starting part-time.
  2. Temporarily working different hours.
  3. Performing different duties or tasks.
  4. Avoiding certain tasks or getting support to do the job. For example, if an employee has back pain, the doctor may recommend that they avoid heavy lifting.

If the employer is unable to accommodate the changes advised by the healthcare professional, then the fit note is treated as though it said, “unfit for work”.

Featured Guide
Here’s our guide for small businesses to provide ‘Hardship allowance‘ to your employees.

Can an employee be charged for a fit note?

Is Fit Note Chargeable?
There is never a charge for providing a fit note if an employee is off sick from work for more than 7 days.

For sicknesses of 7 days or less, the GP practice may charge to provide a private medical certificate. For example, some employers may request medical evidence from employees who repeatedly take time off sick, even if each time they’re off work is less than 7. A fit note cannot be used for this purpose and a healthcare professional may charge to issue a private certificate.

Why do employers require fit notes?

The short answer is, not all employers do require employees to provide sick notes. Those that do are often simply trying to keep the staff from taking time off work without a reasonable reason and prevent employees from milking their absence policy. 

Most employers will pay sick leave to those who are absent due to illness. They will also have to pay the extra costs of covering the missing staff. By asking staff to provide sick notes when they are away from work for over 7 days, they are protecting their business and ensuring that they do not lose vast amounts of money paying for absent staff. 

Manage staff absence requests online? Register for a free consultation.

What are the recent changes to legislation with respect to fit notes in the UK?

The Department of Work and Pensions has recently announced a major change to the rules on who can give out fit notes that certify that an employee is too ill to go to work. The change gives more healthcare professionals the power to write a fit note. This has been done in an attempt to reduce pressure on GPs.

Fit Note Law Amendment (2022)
This latest change follows the introduction of digital fit notes in April this year (2022) as part of the Statutory Sick Pay (Medical Evidence) (Amendment) Regulations 2022. Digital fit notes mean that a sick note can now either be handed to an employer in person or digitally issued.

The new legislation simplifies things even more so that a wider range of healthcare professionals can certify fit notes across England, Scotland and Wales.

How will the new fit note legislation affect a company’s sick leave policy?

Any change to laws relating to how a business is run is a good time to review and reform company policies. The recent changes to how sick notes are issues is no exception. It’s easy for an employer to set policies out and then leave them alone to rot and become outdated. 

If a business has a sick leave policy, changes to rules and regulations may need the wording of the policy to be updated to reflect the new situation. In respect to the changes announced in April, the policy may need to change to reflect that an employee can provide a fit note from a variety of healthcare sources, such as: 

  • A Nurse
  • An Occupational Therapist
  • A Physiotherapist 
  • A Pharmacist

These options are accessible alongside the usual avenue of contacting a doctor.

A business may even wish to outline the circumstances under which sick notes are acceptable. For example, a company may accept that shorter absences can be signed off by any approved medical professional, you may want to insist on a doctor-certified fit note for longer terms of absence.

If a company doesn’t currently have a sick leave policy, the changes to the law are a good time as any to put one into place. Formalising a framework for how sickness will be managed will allow companies to keep track of unauthorised absences and allow them to pursue disciplinary action if an employee takes advantage of the absence policy.

Best Practices for Absence Planning

How can businesses support an employee’ return to work?

The premise of sick note is that employees do not need to be 100% healthy to return to work, and that resuming duties may in some circumstances support recovery.

Where a sick note indicates that an employee ‘may be fit for work’, the employer should explore any changes that may need to be made to support the return to work.

Where a medical professional has certified that the worker may be able to return to work, the sick note will often indicate any changes an employer may need to make. These could include:

  1. A phased return to work – for example, part-time to full-time.
  2. Altered hours – for example, fewer hours or flexible working hours.
  3. Amended duties – for example, nothing involving physical activity.
  4. Workplace adaptations – for example, the provision of specialised equipment, such as an ergonomically designed chair if an employee has been off sick with back problems.

The fit note may also include detailed comments on the functional effects of their condition and how changes to an employee’s work environment will help. In the event that no agreement can be reached between the employer and the worker as to suitable changes, the employee will still be treated as if they are unfit for work.

manage shift planning, timesheet and sta
Free Trial
Track Staff Working Hours, Record Absence & Approve Vacation
  • Clock in and out from browser
  • Time tracking via Phone & Tablet app
  • View & approve time records online
  • Export timesheets to payroll
  • View & approve staff vacation requests
  • Overview of employee availability & absences
14 days free trial. No credit card required
14 days free trial More on Staff Timesheet

Disabilities and reasonable adjustments 

Where an employee’s illness is classified as a disability, the employer by law is required to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to ensure that the worker is not disadvantaged when they carry out their job.

Workers will be treated as having a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if they have a physical or mental impairment, and that impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. The impairment is long-term if it has lasted for at least 12 months or is likely to last for at least 12 months.

Any failure to make reasonable adjustments could amount to disability discrimination for which an employee may be able to make a claim at an employment tribunal.

In conclusion

Having a robust fit notes policy is vital for a business when dealing with sickness. This is even more important in light of the recent law changes in regard to who can issue the document. Consider Papershift’s staff leave planner software to manage staff absence requests and stay on the ride of law.

Written by Siva

I write & describe the value & benefits delivered by Paperhift's rota planning, staff time tracking, and employee payroll management software. Especially useful for Shift Planners, Rota Managers, Team Admins, and HR Teams :-)