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Death of the UK Sick Note 

10 June 2024

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Story by
Michael Doolin CEO, Clover HR

Michael Doolin, CEO of Clover HR and former HR Director for brands including PwC, DPD and BA discusses what the ‘end of the sick note’ could mean for employers.

On the 19th of April, 2024, Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced his plans to end the UK’s ‘sick note culture’ with a complete overhaul of the current system. 

People on long-term sick leave and disability will be encouraged to return to work, with trial health services being extended in certain areas to facilitate their reintroduction. This will be accompanied by a reduction in the number of monthly benefit payments the government makes for PIP (personal independence payment – to help people keep living and moving around), particularly in cases where current recipients are deemed to only require ‘one-off’ support. 

Under the new system, GPs will no longer be required to deal with time-off requests, with fit notes being dealt with via an external government-appointed service. This will likely result in an increase of people joining the available talent pool, in addition to reducing the burden on our overworked NHS. 

Whilst the move may be positive for employers in terms of access to a broadening diversity of candidates, however, it will also introduce unprecedented workplace challenges. Combined with the government’s Back to Work plan, which will assist up to 1,100,000 disabled people in their return to full- or part-time work, employers that are welcoming previously inactive or struggling candidates to their teams must be prepared to provide the necessary support. 

Unique adjustments required

People struggling with both physical and mental health difficulties will require unique adjustments to allow them to perform at their best, which means holding candid conversations with them to find out what they need from you as an employer. For instance, those in a wheelchair might require railings and ramps to be installed, whilst those with carpal tunnel syndrome may need access to an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. 

This is not a huge leap from where we already stand in terms of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The issue, then, stems from the fact that a) the consequences of less visible conditions may not be so easy to mitigate and b) the sudden influx of additional needs in the workplace could distress other employees, who may feel insecure not knowing how to provide appropriate colleague support. 

The mental health challenge

Mental health will be a particularly difficult challenge for both colleagues and employers, given that Sunak’s estimation of anxiety and depression as an ‘overmedicalisation’ of our everyday lives means that more struggling people will be forced back into work before they are ready. In these cases, everything from asking about a missed deadline to requiring the worker in question to make a phone call could be triggering, potentially leading to more major issues such as suicidality or burnout. 

Employers must therefore become more adept at recognising the signs before it is too late, knowing how and where to signpost employees who are struggling and in need. This includes looking out for colleagues who may be affected by others’ difficulties and/or behaviours – with all-round support for each and every member of the team becoming an absolute must for businesses that want to keep running. 

Indeed, according to mental health charity, Mind, at least one in four UK citizens struggles with ill mental health each year, with one in six of us reporting common mental health problems like anxiety and depression on a weekly basis. This really highlights how poor health – physical or mental – can affect us all and the extent to which this experience not only reduces quality of life but also threatens productivity. 

Employer’s role in providing support

With 7.54 million Brits on waiting lists for various treatments, according to the British Medical Association, it’s clear that we cannot simply expect people to ‘pull their socks up and get over it’ – when adequate support is not in place. The NHS is extremely overburdened, making the likelihood of a prompt resolution of issues quite low. The onus therefore falls upon the employer to ensure their team members are happy and supported in both their professional and personal lives. 

Whilst private medical insurance is an option, this does not mean taking healthcare into our own hands. Rather, there are plenty of people-focussed actions that employers can take to create happier and healthier teams. 

In addition to supporting those with health struggles by providing access or signposts to relevant services, employers can prepare both managers and colleagues with adequate training, for example. This ensures that the stress and discomfort of seeing peers suffer doesn’t cause detriment to existing staff, who will furthermore be better positioned to provide support, advice and camaraderie in the most appropriate and compliant way. 

Employers might also consider promoting a healthy work-life balance with flexible working or offering more paid time off to those who need it – to reduce any financial or security related stressors when conditions flare up or mental health dips. Mentoring and peer support likewise go far, as does employee recognition, with small perks potentially making a life-saving difference to an employee’s self-esteem. 

Good mental health high on agenda

As Andrew Berrie – Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind – quite rightly points out, crating mentally healthy workplaces should already by high on every employer’s agenda. Of benefit to the entire workforce, wellbeing initiatives not only serve staff but also save employers money, with data from Deloitte revealing that for every £1 spent on team mental health, leaders will get an average of £5.30 back. 

Whilst the wellbeing journey that your business must take will invariably differ according to staff needs, team size, and type of operations, the first step in any workplace wellbeing goal is to recognise that everybody has different triggers and thresholds. What stresses out one employee may be of little consequence to another, highlighting the importance of keeping an open mind and allowing team members to share their unique needs and struggles without minimisation. Difficult enough to admit to in the first place, triggers and challenges should never be punished. Rather, we must foster supportive cultures grounded in what people truly need to stay well. This is the only way to ensure that people feel and perform at their best.

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