Every employer believes, whether it has any actual experience of the matter or not, that GPs are too willing to sign people off sick.  Whether the certificate says back pain, URTI (sore throat), anxiety or depression, the employer just knows that the GP has signed a medical certificate for an easy life, is in collusion with the employee or has been duped into it.  Everyone knows that there is no incentive for the doctor to refuse the certificate or to encourage the employee back to work, and that no tests are carried out to distinguish genuine illness from the sweats, racing heart and rolling eyes (not to mention ferocious halitosis) easily achieved for less than a tenner laid out on Starbucks expressos.

While for the most part these universal truths are unquestionably false, they have nonetheless attracted the attention of Government policy makers. This Saturday’s Independent Workers on long-term sick leave face tougher assessment tests – UK Politics – UK – The Independent reports on recommendations to create a Government-funded service for employers and GPs to which the long-term sick could be referred.  That service would then focus on assessing what work those employees could actually do, and developing strategies to re-introduce them back into active employment.  The recommendation arises from a report, the Independent Review of Sickness Absence, commissioned by Carol Black, the Government’s Director for Health & Work, and David Frost (not that one, a former Director of the British Chamber of Commerce) Sickness absence system reviewed – UK Politics – UK – The Independent.  The report is driven by instructions from Ministers to cut costs for employers and the Government.

However, while a more rigorous look at long-term sickness may cut costs for the Government in ruling more people ineligible for incapacity benefit, the chances of its doing the same for employers look pretty slim. 

First, the fit note procedure (arising from a previous report produced by Carol Black herself) already encourages GPs to focus on what sick employees could do, as opposed to what they cannot, and what steps an employer might take to reintegrate them into the workforce.  Second, it is not long-term sickness absence which costs employers most money – that is often unpaid or funded by a PHI scheme.  The costly part of staff absence for employers is the short-term stuff – unpredictable, at short notice, and sometimes on more than tenuous grounds.  The recommendations of the Frost/Black report offer no help here.

Therefore employers are thrown back on the traditional options – either developing that particular form of repetitive strain injury one gets from constantly bending over backwards to accommodate sickly staff, or adopting more robust sickness management procedures as a deterrent.  These could be a rigorous program of back-to-work meetings, making any sick pay above statutory sick pay conditional upon the obtaining of a doctor’s certificate, or simply evoking at an early stage the curative properties of not being paid.  None of it is very attractive, but it will be of a great deal more practical help to employers day-to-day than anything in the Frost/Black report.