07 April 2010

No more sick notes?

The sick note is on its way out. Say hello to the 'fit note'. Doctors in the UK will now specify what you can do, rather than what you can't.

The sick note is on its way out. Say hello to the 'fit note'. Doctors in the UK will now specify what you can do, rather than what you can't.

Obviously if you have something contagious, have had a serious operation, or you have been badly injured, the doctor will still book you off. No employers, not even the seriously draconian ones, would want someone spreading nasty germs around the office, or moving around with a drip. The new rules, which became law on 6 April 2010, apply to people who are booked off for more than seven days.

So what has changed?

Doctors will now state what you are fit to do given the nature of your illness. A driver, who has broken his ankle, is obviously not able to get in behind the wheel, but should be quite able to help out with light admin duties.

The doctor will specify what type of work you could manage, given the state of your health. Up until now, someone in that position would have been booked off solidly for a few weeks, which could be very costly for the company involved.

There is substantial evidence that continuing to work has therapeutic benefits for employees, whilst being signed off as sick may lead to negative health effects such as reduced motivation, according to a press release on the issue by Warwick International Computing Systems.

The situation in SA

While there are obviously millions of people who are genuinely off sick, it is estimated that 'bunking' work costs the SA economy R12bn per year.

Some people have genuine reasons to take sick leave. But, some don't, says Terry Berelowitz, medical director of Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA). "Companies are currently really suffering because employees reckon they are entitled to a certain number of days of sick leave a year, and take it under false pretences."

According to Berelowitz, not all doctors are guilty, but there are many who too easily issue sick-leave certificates. "It is general practice for doctors to prescribe a week's sick leave for general illness, without checking after two or three days whether it is necessary."

Janis Petersen and Aashiqa January, human resources consultants at, agree that the current system is too black and white. They stress that people are sometimes booked off when they are quite capable of doing light duties.

Depends on employers

"Much depends on the nature of the work and the size of the company", says January. "If one works in an environment where it is for instance possible to dial up from home on a laptop, much can be done to accommodate the employee who might be recovering, but may not be fit to travel."

She added that the size of the company also played a significant role in making the 'fit note' system work, as there might not be suitable light duties for someone to perform in small companies.

"A system such as this one would have to be managed centrally," says Petersen. It would also be essential that doctors had a clear picture of what someone's daily job required them to do, so it would be feasible for there to be some contact between the medical practitioner and human resource managers if sufficient information cannot be obtained from a patient."

So, the days of being booked off for two weeks when one week would actually do, might be over.

Read more about the new UK regulations, and about sick leave myths in SA.

(Susan Erasmus,, April 2010)

(Sources:, UK Department for Work and Pensions, Sake24)


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.