On 10 December 2021 the UK Government changed Employment Law, in respect of when an individual is sick, on a temporary basis to help ease pressure on NHS GPs in light of the ongoing pandemic. The change in regulation was a simple one and meant employees could self certify for up to (and including) their 28th day of absence - a big change from the previous 7 days. This was done specifically to help the Government's Covid Booster Campaign meaning that Doctor's were being better utilised to meet targets set for vaccinations and boosters in December 2021.

Traditionally, employees wouldn't require a doctors note to be absent from work for reasons of sickness, but could instead self certify for up to (and including) the seventh consecutive day of absence - whether rostered for shifts, or not. After this point, if the employee still felt they were unable to commit to work (their contract of employment), they would need a referral note from their GP.

Normally, an employee would not receive any wages for their sick period, and instead would be paid a Government stipend via their employer called Statutory Sick Pay, or SSP. SSP rates increased from 5th April 2021, meaning that if you earn over £120 per week and are off sick for more than four days in a row, you're entitled to SSP of £96.35 per week unless you're otherwise receiving a wage.

Self certification can be handled differently depending on what employer you work for, though generally, you would be expected to notify your employer on a daily basis of your inability to work. This allows the employer to schedule a discussion with you to try and facilitate your return to work, as every case of absence is ultimately unique, and the same illness may not affect two people equally. This is especially true of those with mental health problems.

Recently my partner needed to take time off work due to mental health issues, caused through anxiety and depression, and approached her doctor in order to obtain a sick note on my advice. My partner did not have any history of absence from her employer but since she had recently transferred contracts and was therefore on a probation period, she was nervous of causing any undue issue, for fear of further action or even dismissal. Knowing my partners anxiety about calling into work and discussing the issue in detail and in an attempt to quell her concerns, I had felt that a fit/sick note would provide adequate coverage for the entire period of her absence, and following discussion the doctor agreed and this note was issued. This would mean (much like my own personal experience in 2020) she would not need to continue to call her employer on a daily basis and inform them she was unable to report for her shift. I was unaware at this time that the law had changed.

With my partner working from home, and for the NHS, standard procedure would be to report an absence phoning a dedicated absence line and also sending an electronic message to her line manager. On the morning she called, it had taken 20 minutes for someone to answer her call, leading to further anxiety about whether her absence would be reported as AWOL. Later that day, after several hours, she received a call from her line manager and the situation was discussed. Having received the note from the GP, however, she was informed that whilst it would be placed on her file it would still be expected she call every day for the first 28 days of her absence.

Given my partners own health, I found it bizarre that her employer would insist on her making contact every single day, especially when she had consulted a medical professional and was not self certifying. Further to this, my partner explained that she did not intend to take more time off then was needed, and although the note itself was for an entire month she would be happy to keep in regular contact with her employer and update them. Her line manager informed her that he would arrange to have an informal chat with her, as is procedure, but regardless she would need to notify him every single day she was registered for a shift and was not able to attend.

From our perspective, this prevents my partner entirely from having a consistent absence from work, from taking a mental break for at least a few days whilst she attempts to relax and seek further therapy. Whilst I appreciate that making a small call to work every morning to register your absence is not the greatest intrusion, it does involve my partner needing to wake up in advance of when her shift would be, focusing attention on a routine that sickness - and mental health - could be improved by forgetting for just a few days. What has begun as a simple process could turn, very easily, into a longer term problem and exaggerate her condition.

Mental Health Charity Mind has already reported that the "the sick pay system isn’t working for people with mental health problems" and regardless of the amount of SSP received the real problem in this case lies with the inflexibility of my partners employer, who should be more receptive to the fact that my partner already has a sicknote and shouldn't need to self certify. Employee organisation ACAS says that "If the employee feels their absence or sick pay was not handled fairly or correctly, they can raise the issue with their employer."

The law regarding Sick notes looks to be temporary, however, there is no sign as to if - or when - this might be officially repealed. Whilst it is in the Government's best interest not to repeal it at this stage, the change has meant we are all expected to be more flexible, meaning surely employers should be more flexible as well?

Sources/Further Reading
Statutory Sick Pay | Mind, the mental health charity - help for mental health problems
Taking sick leave - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Fit notes and proof of sickness: Absence from work - Acas