Unum, one of the UK’s leading providers of financial protection insurance, is urging employers to ensure that they always conduct a risk assessment for any employee returning to work after sickness absence.
The new fit note introduced on April 6, 2010, provides additional information from a doctor about a person’s fitness for work, but does not relieve employers of responsibility for ensuring that the employee’s return is appropriate and reasonable.

Although in most cases the return to work is straightforward, a risk assessment is the best way to ensure that it is as smooth as possible for all parties, particularly after a prolonged absence or severe illness.

The new Statement of Fitness for Work (fit note) designed by the Department of Work and Pension (DWP) will be used in England, Scotland and Wales. It reflects extensive research demonstrating that long periods out of work can lead to poor health, while working can be good for physical and mental health and well-being.

As the DWP has pointed out, GPs (family doctors) are not experts at assessing fitness for work. Just as the sick note was never proof’ of incapacity for work, a fit note stating someone is fit for some work is no guarantee that they can safely return to any role. Unum therefore advises employers to carry out risk assessments to determine exactly what is reasonable and appropriate.

Professor Michael O’Donnell, Chief Medical Officer at Unum, says: “In most cases such a risk assessment need only be brief, but when there are safety considerations, or continuing health problems, employers may need to seek expert advice.”

Joy Reymond, Unum’s Head of Rehabilitation and Health Management Services, says: “The doctor may suggest simple changes to help the employee return to work earlier. By identifying that the employee has some capacity to work, they are inviting both employer and employee to explore the possibilities.

“Employers should already step in when employees have been off sick for some time to identify how to assist and support them back into work. There are many tools available to help employers do this, but traditional attendance policies, employee assistance programmes and occupational health services have often discouraged a return to work during recovery because they have been unduly risk-averse.”

As Professor O’Donnell explains: “The DWP is trying to dispel a common misconception that employers need a signing-off note before the return to work. This is neither required by legislation nor by employers’ liability insurers. The new fit note and the abolition of the signing-off note highlight that fitness and unfitness to work are not absolutes, and lie along a spectrum. In many cases full fitness will never be achieved if the return to work is delayed. We hope that employers will gain greater confidence to engage in rehabilitation programmes. Experts are not always needed. With straightforward medical problems often all that is required is a common-sense discussion between the employee and their manager.”

Unum advises that although the fit note does not compel employers to offer modified work, in order to ensure compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act, they must have good reasons for not offering this if it is recommended. Employers may also need to review their attendance policies to evaluate if the fit note requires changes to the wording of their occupational sick pay scheme.

Unum has in-house expertise in both return-to-work and occupational medicine, and is well placed to help employers navigate the new rules. In addition, employers with Unum income protection policies have access to the Unum Lifeworks legal helpline.

For more information
please visit www.unum.co.uk