Businesses can play a role in unburdening our already busy GP’s

It is now vital for employers and employees to recognise the benefits of acting early and working together to support an early return to work following an absence. Introducing an easier or longer sick certification to ease our already too busy GP’s is most definitely the wrong course.

Media articles have picked up the debate from the British Medical Association conference regarding the certification of sick leave, reporting GPs as too busy to certify reliably and calling for self-certification to be extended to cover the first two weeks of absence.

As an ex-GP I recognise the issue, whilst in recent year’s awareness of the positive benefits to health and recovery of early return to work has been proven, the reality is that GPs are hard pressed in short consultations to take a patient’s history, undertake an examination, make a diagnosis, give treatment, gain patient understanding and make the necessary records – time to explore barriers to work and change patient perception regarding work is scant!

Add to this that GP training has relatively little formal occupational health within it – and most have little access to gain formal occupational health advice and you can easily see why certification of sickness can be difficult.

The reality is that this is a very important issue – after only a month off sick, nearly 10% of people become unable to return to work and after only six month’s sickness, more never work again than return. The consequences of becoming workless, which 300,000 people a year become due to sickness, are great – for the individual, for their families and for society.

Wadell and Burton were commissioned by HSE to investigate this and concluded that becoming workless carried the same health risk as smoking ten packets of cigarettes a day! In her review of health of the working age population Dame Carol Black highlighted that poor health and sickness cost the economy the equivalent of running a second NHS – over one hundred billion pounds a year! Simply making it easier to certify sickness isn’t the answer to this!

This is why it’s vital for employers and employees to recognise the benefits of acting early and working together to support an early return to work –easier or longer sick certification is the wrong course! Most illnesses benefit from supported rehabilitation and regrettably the BMA debate highlights that time available in over stretched general practices makes that difficult.

Systems to manage sickness effectively allow employers to recognise early in an employee’s absence the nature of their illness – this enables a dialogue to identify needs and facilitate work adjustment or identify the need for more formal occupational health support. This can dramatically reduce the need for lengthy sickness absence – benefiting the employee’s health and reducing the employer’s costs and losses.

Businesses can also do more to avoid sickness by promoting and improving employee health. It’s easy to recognise that equipment, computers or premises need investment to maintain in good order: but many managers don’t apply the same logic to their employees. Investing in employee health has been proven to save money, improve business competiveness and efficiency and is too often forgotten by many employers. Most of us understand that “prevention is better than cure”, yet when it comes to health we expect to wait until things go wrong before acting.

It’s time to recognise that good employee health and wellbeing is something businesses can improve and relying on overworked GPs to fix the issue is not the answer!