Following consultation with business groups and medical representatives, the Department for Work and Pensions has published guidance for employers and medical practitioners on the new statement of fitness to work (commonly referred to as a fit note). Fit notes will apply only to employees who are signed off sick on or after 6 April 2010.

The guidance suggests that, where the doctor has ticked the "may be fit for work" box on the standard form fit note, their comments should describe the limitations the person may have and should not be too prescriptive about the solutions, emphasising that the idea is to provide information to help the patient and the employer to explore ways of facilitating a return to work. It is not the intention that GPs become occupational health professionals and if the doctor feels that an assessment by an occupational health professional is required, they should say so in the comments box.

In relation to the "return to work" options, the guidance gives examples of the types of changes an employer might make for each option. The guidance emphasises that the doctor's advice will not be binding on the employer. If it is not possible for the employer to support the employee's return to work in the ways suggested on the form, the employee does not need to go back to their GP for a new statement. The existing statement is simply used by the employer and employee as a "sick note", as if the doctor had advised that the employee was "not fit to work".

Impact on employers

Employers and medical practitioners will welcome this guidance on the new fit notes and in particular the emphasis that the doctor's recommendations will not be binding. However, as we advised in last month's e-bulletin, employers should:

  • be aware that in capability dismissal cases (even with non-disabled employees) tribunals are likely to look at the employer's response to a fit note to test the soundness of the capability reason and the fairness of the dismissal process, particularly where adjustments have been recommended but not implemented;
  • ensure that any adjustments recommended by a GP in a fit note are considered and that the reasons for non-implementation are sustainable and recorded; and
  • ensure that line managers have sufficient training and support to apply the new system.