Employers: fit note failing to get people back to work

Posted on 17 Jun 2013

UK manufacturers are calling on the government to tackle sickness absence after a survey showed that employers have lost faith that the fit note programme is succeeding in getting people back to work.

The 2013 EEF/Westfield Health Sickness Absence survey suggests the improvements in sickness absence seen in recent years have now plateaued and that further progress will only be made through concerted action to tackle longer-term absence from work.

However, it also indicates that manufacturers are becoming increasingly sceptical about one of the initiatives the government hoped would address this issue – the so-called fit note.

Terry Woolmer, head of health and safety policy at EEF, said: “We are only going to make further progress on sickness absence if we do something differently. That means making the fit note deliver the advice to help employers and employees work together to get more of them returning earlier to work. However, employers that were willing to give the fit note a chance are now becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of advice that it is providing.”

According to the survey, sickness absence rates have plateaued at 2.2% and 2.3% for 2011 and 2012 respectively, having previously fallen from 3% in 2007. The average number of days lost to absence has shown a minor increase from a low of 5.1 days in 2011 to 5.3 days in 2012. It also showed that the proportion of employees with zero sickness absence rates has also remained static at 51% this year, having risen steadily from just over 40% over the past five years.

Progress in reducing sickness absence has stalled despite a growing number of companies taking action through return to work interviews, line manager training, setting stretching absence targets and providing their employees with occupational health.

This is because more manufacturers are reporting that longer-term sickness absence is increasing (40%) rather than decreasing (24%).

After surgery, the key causes of long-term absence remain back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders; and stress and other mental health problems.

EEF is calling for renewed government action to ensure that the advice provided by GPs helps facilitate more employees returning earlier to work.

Only 26% of employers believe that the fit note has resulted in employees returning to work earlier, compared to 40% who said that they are not. More companies disagree (49%) than agree (20%) that the advice given by GPs about employees’ fitness for work has improved.

In addition to an urgent summit of employers and the medical profession, the manufacturers’ organisation is calling on the government to take the following action to get the fit note back on track: ensuring all medical professionals are trained in using it; and ensuring DWP monitors the data generated by the fit note to assess quality of advice.

Woolmer continued: “The government needs to sit down with employers and the medical profession to understand what is holding up progress and agree a way forward.”

Paul Shires, executive director at Westfield Health, agreed: “The plateau shown in sickness absence levels reflects the clear need for government to invest more time and effort in helping employers manage the health and wellbeing of their staff.”