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Self-certified sick leave: why employers should trust their staff more

Current practice

Sick leave is always a tricky area for employers. Most employers request that employees self-certify for a week, then obtain a “fit note” (more commonly known as a sick note) from their GP. But the British Medical Association is now calling for self-certified sickness absence to be doubled from one to two weeks. The majority of sick leave, they say, is just over a week, so taking a valuable doctor’s appointment just for the sake of registering a few days off work wastes time for GPs who are already stretched by appointments estimated to have risen by 70 million in the past seven years.

Fear of change

Not surprisingly, the first reaction from many businesses was fear, an assumption that any change will exacerbate one of the real powers employees have - to disrupt business by taking advantage of sick leave. Although most employees have these provisions in their employment contracts, self-certification and fit note obligations are not by themselves legal requirements. Employers are in theory free to decide what medical evidence they require from employees and at what stage. The reason the Fit Note has become a normal contractual provision is because, for the purposes of administering Statutory Sick Pay, the employer needs to give HMRC evidence of incapacity and, although they can provide any reasonable evidence they wish, the Fit Note is the easiest and has therefore become the traditional way to do this. Employers are not allowed to insist on a doctor's certificate for at least the first seven days, so have grown to like the fit note regime as they feel it goes some way to smoking out malingerers.

But would increasing this to two weeks really be so bad?

The reaction does tend to make you ask why a company that has interviewed and engaged an employee to take responsibility and be paid for work does not like them making a judgment call on their own health.

Furthermore, employers know all too well the rigours of keeping on top of sick days, calculating statutory payments for the odd day or week off, keeping an accurate paper trail and an eye on potential disability issues for which they may need to make reasonable adjustments. So less administration for doctors, arguably less for employers too.

Contractual sick pay

Contractual sick pay, where employees are paid in full for absences, in most cases on a sliding scale as the absence continues, would never be implemented if businesses were that worried about employees taking advantage. And they continue to remain popular - because there is no link between the generosity of contractual sick pay and levels of absenteeism. Without wanting to state the obvious, it is employees who are not happy at work who are most likely to take time off (and be genuinely ill), whether they have contractual sick pay or not. And employees are more likely to be unhappy at work if their employers don’t trust them.

Absenteeism and trust

Rises in absenteeism have, arguably, nothing to do with giving more autonomy to employees and more to do with the employer’s general attitude and treatment of their workforce. Especially for small businesses, it has been proven time and time again that if you keep your workforce happy, motivated and supported and reward them properly, not only will absences decrease but your employees become more productive.

Best in class

Businesses such as Netflix, Virgin Group and Facebook have made positive steps towards demonstrating more trust in their employees, by adopting policies such as no official standard work hours, unlimited holiday time and parental leave.

But, despite a smattering of business like those mentioned above adopting this approach, it remains a concept that a lot of employers find hard to grasp. Generally speaking, however, trust is one of the best starting points for a happy, healthy and profitable business.

What next?

Although the government says it had no plans to change the existing policy at the moment, if employers can learn to let go of those reins just a little and trust a little more, increasing self-certification time could be a step in the right direction for business whilst, at the same time, reducing the growing burden on GPs.

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.

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