Britain has a sick note culture – these are the actions employers can take

Britain, by all accounts, has a ‘sick note’ culture. Figures from the HSE that cover a year-long period over 2022/3 reckoned that some 35.2 million working days were lost by employees off sick for one reason or another.

The HSE also found that on average, each person suffering an illness or the like took around 15.8 days off work. The average for injuries was 6.6 days, 17.8 days for Ill health cases, 19.6 days for stress, depression or anxiety, and 13.9 days for musculoskeletal disorders.

And in September 2023, a survey published by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development found that staff took on average, 7.8 sick days off in the previous year.

Motor sector data

As for the motor sector – the only sector that’s close to this publication noted by the HSE – it’s latest data is more than 12 years old. However, it noted then that between 2007/8 and 2011/12, over 7000 injuries were reported of which 33 were fatal and another 1600 were major or serious. Interestingly, the HSE says that “all injuries’ accident rates for the [motor vehicle repair] industry [were] higher than the average for the whole of manufacturing.”

And data from the ONS is only marginally more current since data post 2018 has been more concerned with COVID as a whole. Even so, its Sickness absence rate by industry, 2017, UK, published 2018, found that ‘Wholesale, retail, repair of vehicles’ saw an annual sickness rate of 1.6 percent. Better than ‘Transport and storage’ at 2.5 percent but worse than ‘Mining and quarrying’ at 1.2 percent.

Staff get caught out

A good proportion of sickness cases will be genuine, but there are a significant number where employees haven’t been honest about their condition. Indeed, it’s often surprised TV audiences when reporters have sought the views of the passing public about ‘pulling a sickie’ and found individuals who then affirm, on camera and to potentially their employers, that they would take time off without being genuinely unwell.

Cases do come to light. Back in October 2023, the BBC reported on a “Nottinghamshire PC sacked after lying about sickness to go to Turkey.” It appears that, as the BBC commented, “PC Joseph Jennings had twice requested leave including 29 April, but it was refused due to insufficient staffing. On that morning, a few hours before his shift was due to start, he texted his sergeant saying he had norovirus.” In fact he was already in Turkey.

Staff sickness is a real problem for employers who are often left short staffed, paying someone to be off unwell, and potentially having to pay another to fill in.

But employers are not bereft of options and can take action. However, they cannot just accuse someone of lying about their illness and dismiss on the spot. They need proof and must follow a fair process to dismiss. And even then employers can find themselves in hot water.

Consider the 2022 case of domestic assistant Mr G Galang who was employed by Kestrel Grove Nursing Home. Galang had been accused of lying about his absence due to Covid symptoms and was constructively unfairly dismissed according to the Watford Employment Tribunal. It found that the care home was unable to identify a fair reason for the dismissal and that the allegations of dishonesty “played no part in the claimant’s dismissal.”

Government to reduce the problem

The [former] government has for years been trying to lower social security payments and has been bothered by rising levels of employees off unwell and on benefits. Indeed, it reckons that since the pandemic, total spending on working age disability and ill-health benefits increased by almost two-thirds from £42.3 billion to £69 billion.

Most recently, mid-April, the [former] prime minister Rishi Sunak gave a speech where he outlined a “package of welfare reform measures to tackle the unprecedented rise in economic inactivity.” In particular, he said that the ‘Fit note’ system, where employees are signed off by GPs, is to be reviewed “after 11 million fit notes issued last year with 94 percent written off as unfit to work.”

Sunak’s speech noted too the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics which reported that there were currently 2.8 million people who are ‘economically inactive’ due to long-term sickness – nearly a record high. And of those inactive due to long term sickness at the start of 2023, 53 percent reported that they had depression, bad nerves or anxiety.

As to what happens next is anyone’s guess and will clearly depend on the outcome of the election on 4 July.

But at the time of writing (12 June), while the Conservative Manifesto promised £730m to tackle the ‘sick’ note culture, the Labour manifesto hadn’t been published.

However, assuming that Labour come to power it’s possible that little will change.

A page on its website, A New Deal for Working People, published on 1 January 2024, commented that “…Labour will strengthen Statutory Sick Pay and make it available to all workers…”. However, Personnel Today commented that “a Labour government would work with JobCentres to help the long-term sick get back to work, according to shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall.” Neither of these two actions sound overly helpful.

Actions for employers

As to what employers can practically do, Acas, the government’s independent employment dispute advisor, suggests a number of key steps, the first of which is to have an absence policy which outlines what is expected of staff if they ‘need’ time off.

Managers need to be taught how to apply the policy fairly and consistently while maintaining confidence over sensitive health-related information.

Another key step is to ensure that staff have a good work/life balance to reduce the risk of stress or other related illnesses; reviewing workloads, flexible working and the proper use of holidays are essential. Similarly, the workplace needs the right culture where staff can raise issues, and be supported, rather than seek to avoid them by taking time off ‘ill’.

At the same time, as staff come back so the employer needs to hold ‘return to work’ meetings to support the employee and understand the cause of the absence.

Lastly, noting trends from such meetings may identify previously unknown causes. These causes, when found, need to be addressed whether through training for managers, flexible working, or using mediation to resolve disputes amicably.

But if none of this works, a more formal and legal approach may be required. But that is another story which involves good advice.

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