Every year it is estimated that around 350,000 people leave work to claim health-related benefits and around 172 million working days are lost due to sickness absence. The government believes that early work-focused healthcare and workplace management can help people stay in work and that a GP's advice and guidance can be pivotal to an individual’s decisions about whether or not they should return to work.

With this in mind, the government has announced that "sick notes" are to be replaced with "fit notes", the aim being to help more people stay in work and/or return to work more quickly, rather than becoming long-term sick. This is to be achieved through the "fit note" allowing for doctors to give advice to employees about staying in work or, if they can't work as normal, advising on what their employer can do to help them return to work sooner, such as any changes which could be made to the employee's work environment or job role. The idea is to change the focus to what an individual with a health issue can do. In the proposed new style medical certificates, doctors will be able to classify a patient as "may be fit for some work now" rather than simply whether a patient is, or is not, fit for work.

Employers will not be bound to implement a doctor's suggestions for workplace changes which would facilitate a return to work. Changes will be provided at the discretion of employers and with the agreement of the employee. Employers will, of course, continue to be obliged to make any reasonable adjustments in respect of a disabled employee.

The Government has launched a 12-week consultation on the new "fit notes", which closes on 19 August 2009 and it is understood the new scheme will be introduced in April 2010.
It is to be hoped that fit notes will help employers communicate with absent employees more effectively and assist in getting them back to work earlier, in turn reducing absence levels - the ultimate goal.

The government's consultation document: "Reforming the medical statement" can be viewed here: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/consultations/2009/Reforming-the-Medical-Statement-consultation-28May2009.pdf