Can occupational health overrule GP?

Can occupational health overrule GP?

The answer to ’can occupational health overrule GP?’ is that it is the wrong question to be asking. The central question is not whether occupational health can overrule a general practitioner or not, but is actually whether or not the employer has acted reasonably with regard to decisions made in respect of the sickness absence. It is ultimately for the employer to decide what should be done and not occupational health or the individual’s GP. However, if the individual brings a claim at an Employment Tribunal, for disability discrimination for example, it will be for the Employment Tribunal to determine whether the employer acted appropriately or not.

 There are strong views on this subject and often some misconceptions too. This blog will explore the issues that an employer faces when handling sickness absence and in particular the role of occupational health in the process.

What is the role of occupational health?

When an employee is on sickness absence, and particularly when the absence has been for a considerable period, employers can feel at a loss as to what to do. For instance, the employer may not know when the person is likely to return, or even if a return is ever possible. Similarly, the organisation is unlikely to know what, if anything, it can do to aid the individual’s return.

It is the role of occupational health to provide information that will help to answer these questions, among others, to enable a way forward to be established.

The overlap between occupational health and the person’s GP?

We are all familiar with the role of a general practitioner. Many people have seen the same doctor for many years meaning that the doctor has been a constant in their life. For that reason, individuals commonly take the view that their GP knows them best and therefore what they say should carry the most weight.

The difficulty for employers with that view is that, despite the fit note having the facility to specify the circumstances in which the individual could return to work, such as amended duties, workplace adaptations etc. this information may be very brief. Similarly, if ‘not fit for work’ is ticked an employer is likely to be unsure what should be done going forward and may well just wait until the fit note runs out before asking whether there have been any developments.

Occupational Health is there to provide clarity and guidance. Larger organisations may well have their own occupational health department. Employers without such facilities will   typically need to purchase occupational health support from a provider such as a consultation and medical report.

A medical report would go into far more depth than a fit note. For example, such a report would be likely to express a view regarding approximately how long the individual will be absent from the workplace for, and what steps could be taken to facilitate a return to work.

There is a commonly held view that occupational health will do as the employer wishes. Perhaps this misconception is held because it is the employer who pays for the services of the occupational health provider, or maybe it is because where the occupational health facilities are internal all staff, including those working in occupational health, work for the same organisation.

The view above misses the point. Those working in occupational health are health care professionals. They provide advice to those managing sickness absence. It is the case that occupational health is likely to focus on measures that could be adopted to make a return to work possible, but that aim of returning to work is what both the absent employee and their employer want.

What should an employer do to effectively manage sickness absence?

1. Ensure that the appropriate policies and procedures are in place

An organisation should have a range of policies and procedures in place which relate to sickness absence. Having robust policies and procedures in place will mean that everyone who is absent due to sickness will know what will happen throughout the process. Such documentation will also demonstrate that everyone will be treated consistently and fairly.


2. Seek professional advice as soon as possible

Sickness absence, particularly when it is long term, can be challenging to navigate. For instance, should an organisation get in touch with the person who is on sickness absence? If so, when and what can be done to make those conversations as positive as possible? What questions can or should an organisation ask? When should an organisation involve occupation health and what steps should be taken to ensure the necessary information is obtained? What are the consequences of getting it wrong and how can that be avoided? It is best to gain advice at the outset so as to prevent mistakes which it may not be possible to undo in the future.

Obtaining advice is particularly important because, as was pointed out earlier, it is ultimately the employer who decides what action should be taken in the circumstances. Plotkin & Chandler can answer the questions above, and many more, so that clients are able to make an informed decision about what they wish to do.


3. Maintain a dialogue with the individual who is absent

It is all too common for organisations, to think that no action is needed until the individual returns from absence. Although the reasons for the absence from work may vary, it is important to communicate and for all involved to know what is going on. We can provide training to ensure such conversations are positive and constructive.

4. Keep notes

This is simple advice which is often forgotten. Making a note of what was said during conversations and keeping emails safe is an effective way of knowing what has been done and what next steps will be. Effective note taking reduces the likelihood of people disputing minutes of a meeting, for more information on that topic click on the link.

5. Put a plan in place

When dealing with long term absence, it is common for organisations to feel that the situation has gone on for a long time and no progress has been made. This is usually because there is not a plan in place. Not having a plan in place means that instead of the process being like a journey with a specific destination, with planned stops along the way, it actually feel more like a mystery tour where the people involved have no idea what is going to happen when, or how long it is all going on for.

Plotkin & Chandler works exclusively in the areas of HR and employment law. If you would like to discuss any issues relating to managing sickness ring us on 020 3923 8616 or email us at info@plotkinandchandler.com






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