Mental Health in the Workplace: Fit notes

In the UK, employees are entitled to statutory sick pay of up to 28 weeks. Whilst nothing is required to be produced by the employee for sickness leave of seven days or less, an employee who is absent for longer must provide a “fit note” (previously known as a doctor’s note or sick note). A fit note is a record of advice from the employee’s doctor to their employer. It is not legally binding but acts as confirmation of the sickness, as well as providing the employer with some details as to an expected return date, and what the employer could be doing to help the employee return to work.

Importantly, under the Equality Act (2010), an employer has a legal duty to make "reasonable adjustments" to the employee’s work in order for an employee to be better placed to return to the workplace following a period of sick leave. For example;

  • flexible hours – e.g. returning part-time, or starting later in the day if the employee is sleepy from medication in the mornings
  • support from a colleague in the short or long term
  • a place the employee can go for a break when needed

Whilst a fit note provides a doctor with an opportunity to make suggestions as to what reasonable adjustments would be preferential in the individual’s circumstance, the Royal College of Psychiatrists say that more needs to be done to facilitate an employee returning to work, and need GP’s to “be more active in tailoring these suggestions to that person”.

According to a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists on mental health and work, "Many people with mental health problems fear that, no matter how good a recovery they have made, their symptoms will be made worse by going back to work."  

The NHS Digital Report states that nearly a third of fit notes issued by GPs are for psychiatric problems, and between 2015-16 and 2016-17 there has been a 14% increase in fit notes relating to anxiety and stress. Almost half of the individuals claiming Employment and Support Allowance in England are receiving payments as a result of mental and behavioural disorders, and more than one in five psychiatric sick notes were issued for longer than 12 weeks.

Interestingly this issue has been highlighted recently by a US employee who took a couple of days sick leave for mental health, and very openly placed this in her out of hours email. Whilst many may have expected a disapproving look or comment from their boss, this employee received an email from the CEO praising her for her courage and great example.

With most individuals struggling to return to work for fear of making their symptoms worse, employers should remember that they have a duty to make reasonable adjustments.

If you have any questions regarding employment rights in relation to sick pay, or what you should be doing as an employer by way of providing those rights, then please get in touch with our Employment Team (employment@kitsons-solicitors.co.uk).